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Published: Thursday, 3/10/2005

Buckeyes all dressed up with nowhere to dance

CHICAGO - Matt Sylvester hit the shot heard 'round the country Sunday against No. 1 Illinois.

He has been the toast of Columbus ever since his winning 3-pointer swished through the net with 5.1 seconds remaining.

For the last four days, Sylvester has been bombarded with e-mails and phone calls, hearing from former coaches, family and friends.

"I've heard from just about everyone but George W.," he said, jokingly.

No wonder.

Sylvester's basket prevented Illinois from becoming the first Big Ten team in 29 years to finish with an unbeaten record in the regular season.

He and the Buckeyes are still basking in the glow of their monumental 65-64 upset victory at Value City Arena.

Although Ohio State had compiled a 42-40 record in its previous 82 games, Sunday's win gave the program instant credibility.

It was their NCAA tournament game, their Final Four.

It was such a big deal that football coach Jim Tressel was seen trading high-fives with members of the student body after Ohio State won its 19th game of the season.

"This game was a reflection of where the Ohio State program is going," junior captain Terence Dials said.

Normally, the magic number for getting into the 65-team NCAA tournament field is 20 wins.

Ohio State should reach that milestone easily today when it plays lowly Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

Typically, win No. 20 would be reason to celebrate, but this week - this year - it is not.

This is the end of the road for Ohio State, no matter what transpires inside the United Center in the Windy City.

There will be no NCAA tournament bid for the Buckeyes, and no NIT invitation, due to a self-imposed, one-year ban on postseason play for violations committed under Jim O'Brien, who was fired last June.

Even if the Buckeyes would somehow miraculously fi nd a way to win the Big Ten tournament, they re not going anywhere, except back to Columbus.

In other words, the Buckeyes are all dressed up with nowhere

to go.

I don t want this season to end, said coach Thad Matta, who has signed an eight-year contract worth more than $11 million in guaranteed income if he serves the length of it. But honestly, in my mind, you come to the conclusion that we re in Chicago, and regardless of the outcome, we re going back and the season s over.

When Matta informed his players of the postseason ban in December OSU officials decided on the punishment in hope that the NCAA, which is investigating the program, will not wipe out future postseason appearances many reacted in anger, including senior guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham.

Most of us felt like we had done nothing wrong, he said.

We didn t know why we had to be the players who paid for what

happened before. It s really, really tough now because we d be right in there fi ghting for an NCAA bid.

Ohio State very well could have more wins this season. Three of the Buckeyes losses have been by two points, and they have lost two other games in overtime.

As it is, win No. 20 would tie Matta with Gary Williams for the most victories for a fi rst-year head coach at Ohio State.

However, for the fi rst time in his five-year coaching career, Matta won t be taking a team to the NCAA tournament.

It s not his fault.

The Buckeyes almost certainly would be going to the Big Dance if not for their own postseason ban.

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