William Buford admitted to having thoughts about leaving Ohio State after his junior year for the NBA, but the desire to create more memories as a Buckeye in his senior season quickly became more important after a night that he wishes he could forget.
Buford pictured things going differently in Ohio State’s matchup with Kentucky in the Sweet 16 of last season’s NCAA Tournament. His picturesque jump shot traveled toward the rim with less than six seconds remaining on the clock with the Buckeyes’ chance to move on in the tournament still alive.
Instead Buford’s three-point attempt that could have instantaneously erased a miserable shooting night missed, sealing Kentucky’s 62-60 victory over the top-seeded Buckeyes while simultaneously ending the season of one of the nation’s most promising teams.
“I believe that was one of the worst games I have ever had and I never want to let that happen again,” Buford told BSB. “After the game, to be honest, I felt like I lost the game for us because that was a big game and they needed me to show up and I didn’t.”
Hence, Buford didn’t want to leave Ohio State with that game as his lasting memory.
Maybe thoughts about taking his game to the next level swirled through Buford’s mind while sitting devastated in Ohio State’s locker room in Newark’s Prudential Center following perhaps the most agonizing feeling of defeat he’s ever tasted.
That night the 6-foot-6, 220-pound guard was plagued by a feeling of remorse as his role as one of the team’s most important scorers was replaced with a 2-for-16 shooting night.
“I feel like this university has done a lot for me,” Buford said. “I felt like the least I could do is stick around one more year after that terrible game that I had. I just want to get a national championship for this school.”
Sophomore center Jared Sullinger also spurned the NBA draft, turning his back on an almost-certain lottery pick and a life-changing amount of money to return to an OSU team that is yet again expected to make a deep run in the postseason.
Buford likely wouldn’t have been a first-round pick, but analysts predicted he might have been selected in the second round because of his outstanding scoring ability.
Though most programs would be satisfied with a run to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year, both Sullinger and Buford hope to erase memories of falling far short of the team’s ultimate goals.
But to Buford, the weight of what happened in Newark rests solely on his shoulders. Through offseason workouts, the cloud of his night against the Wildcats has continued to hang over his head.
“That game left a lasting impression in the back of his mind because obviously he didn’t perform the way he was capable of,” OSU assistant coach Jeff Boals said. “I am sure that drives him every time he works out. His goal is to win a national championship, and I think that’s a big reason he came back as well, along with Jared, to make that run for it.”
Despite the losses of key seniors Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale, Buford and Sullinger have Ohio State listed by many as one of the favorites to compete for the national championship.
But in order to make those predictions a reality, there is no questioning the importance of Buford’s consistent offensive output. Ironically, it is what he was unable to do against Kentucky that Ohio State will count on the most in 2011-12.
Though he came up short against the Wildcats, Buford proved he was more than capable of providing that scoring effort during OSU’s exceptional 34-3 season last year. He averaged 14.4 points per game, second behind only the prominent inside scorer Sullinger.
One statistic that tends to be overlooked was Buford’s prolific scoring ability from beyond the arc. He was the second-best three-point shooter in Big Ten play, behind only Diebler.
“I think William was a huge factor in winning 34 games last year,” Boals said. “He kind of went under the radar and wasn’t really the focal point of anyone’s defense because of Jared and Jon and obviously Dave Lighty.”
That is certainly going to change this season, as Buford returns as one of the best-known players in the conference. In order to combat being the concentration of opposing team’s defenses, he has worked diligently this summer in improving his game.
Admitting he relied too much on his jumper a year ago, Buford has concentrated on bulking up more this summer in an effort to become more consistent at finishing around the hoop and through contact.
Getting to the free-throw line has been the point of emphasis Buford has tried to grow on, specifically because the weapons he enjoyed playing with last season are gone. As a result, his looks won’t come as easily.
“I have been doing a lot of stuff with my strength and conditioning coach on quickness and explosiveness, and I think that has worked,” Buford said. “I have been working out with the coaches with pads and trying to finish through contact.
“It never is a problem getting to the rim. I feel like I can get there any time I want. I just want to work on finishing now and making my free throws and getting to the free-throw line.”
This season will have a different feel for Buford, who will play his first season at Ohio State without Diebler, Lighty and Lauderdale. Though he was viewed as a leader as a junior, he has completely taken over that role as the oldest player on the team.
The Buckeyes will be more balanced age-wise since the blend of veterans and freshmen will be more evenly distributed on Thad Matta’s 2011-12 team.
“My role has changed in a good way,” Buford said. “I am ready to take on the challenge. I learned from Dallas, Dave and Jon from last year on how to lead a team and how to get the team prepared for games and practices. I am just trying to follow what they were doing and pick everyone up and make sure we don’t have any down days.”
With Ohio State just a month removed from starting practice for the new season, visions of what could be in his final go-round with the program have slowly started to form. Slowly drifting into the past is the night he hopes to forget.
Though that taste won’t easily be shaken, Buford has continued to work toward making his final season with the Buckeyes full of good memories heading into the future.
“Will is a hard worker,” sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said. “He does what he needs to do to make himself better. He knows his weaknesses and he knows what he needs to work on. That’s one of the biggest things about Will that kind of sets himself apart from other people.”
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