If William Buford is the difference between a Final Four run and an early exit in the NCAA Tournament for the Ohio State basketball team, it’s quite strange that the people closest to the senior have a hard time describing his game.
Even Aaron Craft, viewed as the team’s intellectual, can’t seem to find the perfect way to sum up what Buford is or what he’s about.
“Will is Will,” Craft said, opting to submit to the general statement widely used by those who know the team’s lone senior the best. It’s often easier reverting to that instead of trying to explain the intricacies that make up Buford.
Seldom are things constant with Buford, whether it is something as small as analyzing his shooting percentage or as large as his role on this season’s team — a squad fighting to make a run deeper in the NCAA tournament than the Sweet 16 for the first time in his career.
Consistency is something Buford is driving to find, as he has, admittedly, struggled at times this season while attempting to get a handle on how to be the focal point of Ohio State’s offense, at least from the perimeter.
A year ago, Buford was kind of the lost man. He was one of the most lethal scoring threats in the Big Ten during his junior season, but his role wasn’t quite as magnified with three senior starters and freshman All-American Jared Sullinger surrounding him.
“It is an interesting dynamic for William this year,” Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals said. “Your role changes on a yearly basis, and he understands that. Sometimes that’s not always easy. He’s like the last Mohican, per se, without Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale. We’re relying a little more on him this season to score the basketball.”
Statistically, Buford is having a very similar season to last year. Entering Tuesday, he was making 42.4 percent of his field-goal attempts after shooting 46.2 percent from the floor as a junior. His percentage from beyond the arc is down to 37.1 percent from 44.2 a year ago, but the 15 points per game this season are the most he has averaged in his career.
This season, though, the scoring has come in spurts. Five times in the Buckeyes’ first 25 games, Buford had failed to score in double figures, and his offensive struggles are amplified specifically during games in which an opponent has big men inside to contain Sullinger.
That was on full display Saturday when Michigan State ended the Buckeyes’ 39-game home winning streak with a 58-48 victory. In that game, Buford made only 2 of 12 shots from the floor and tallied four points — four days after a career-high 29-point performance during an 87-84 victory over Purdue.
The back-to-back performances seem to be Buford’s game in a nutshell this season. He's a streaky shooter, so there are no guarantees he’ll carry over a career performance into the next game. Every performance is a self-contained effort.
Nevertheless, one thing remains constant — and maybe it’s the only thing that matters with Buford.
“He always wants the big shot,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said, “and I am always confident he’s going to make that shot.”
Matta knew Buford wasn’t shooting the ball particularly well when drew up a play for the senior to shoot a 3-pointer late in the game against Wisconsin on Feb. 4.
Buford had converted on only three of his 14 more recent shot attempts as Matta called the play, but Buford buried the attempt to give Ohio State a four-point lead at the Kohl Center with 2:27 remaining. Buford’s shot — the only 3-pointer Ohio State converted in the game — turned out to be the difference in perhaps the team’s biggest conference victory to date. It also seemed to give him a boost in the next game against the Boilermakers.
“Basketball is a lot like life, and when you spend a lot of time with people you develop a relationship with them,” Matta said when discussing his decision to give Buford the shot. “You develop a trust in them.”
That shot — along with the Buford-fueled victory over Purdue — is what has helped the Buckeyes keep pace in the Big Ten regular-season race despite the loss to Michigan State. Both of those teams were 9-3 in league play entering this week with Michigan a half-game back at 9-4 and Wisconsin a full game behind at 8-4.
But there’s no question Buford will have to do it again — both in the regular season and the postseason — if the Buckeyes want to accomplish the lofty goals set long before the season started.
Opposing teams now have a handle on how to beat Ohio State if they can duplicate the game plan drawn up by Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans ran their big men on offense and constantly harassed Sullinger in hopes he would tire, putting the onus on Ohio State’s perimeter shooters to knock down tough outside looks.
Buford was unable to do that despite the fact he came into the game playing perhaps the best basketball of his senior season.
“I felt fortunate because I think they missed some shots they normally make,” Izzo said.
Buford is already working against a negative reputation that has been building since he played, arguably, the worst game of his career in Ohio State’s Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky a year ago.
Buford had a 2-of-16 shooting performance in that game, which included a missed 3-point attempt in the final seconds. Ohio State was left with a 62-60 loss and one gaping hole in the box score that remains in Buford’s head today. To this day, some question his ability to come up big in the biggest games, and now Michigan State game is the latest example.
“I want to go out with the bang this time,” Buford said, while not necessarily calling attention to the final game of his junior season.
Even in the worst shooting game of his career, vs. Kentucky, Buford was where he wanted to be — with the ball in his hands, the game on the line and a clean look at the basket with seconds quickly ticking away.
“I always want that shot,” Buford said. “I’d take it again.”
If Ohio State loses early in the NCAA tournament this year, it’s hard to imagine it will be in a game in which Sullinger is having his way in the paint. That means Buford will likely get his chance at redemption. The difference this year is the team is relying on him — not only to make that final shot, but to have the kind of shooting performance that prevents opponents from collapsing their defense on Sullinger.
And if the pressure of making a game-winning shot isn’t enough, add in dark memories of Ohio State’s Sweet 16 loss from a year ago onto his already burdened shoulders.
Will he make it this time? Who knows?
Will is Will.
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