William Buford is one of the most maddening players that I’ve ever had on the teams that I closely follow. In some of the biggest games of his career, he has failed to rise to the occasion with some hideous shooting performances. Overshadowed by other guards and forwards throughout most of his career, the lone senior on the team is often unfairly the scapegoat for some of the Buckeyes’ less than outstanding play. But, where the frustration enters is with a performances like last night’s against Purdue. Buford had a great shooting game, scoring a career-high 29 points on 10-of-17 shooting. More than the raw numbers, it was the fact that he was practically indefensible in the second half, piling up 21 of those 29 and carrying the offense with both Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft on the bench due to foul trouble. Often a secondary headliner, Buford was the star in Ohio State’s up-tempo seesaw 87-84 victory.
For a good chunk of the game, it looked like the takeaway from this one would be another Jordan Taylor, E’Twaun Moore, Brandon Paul-type performance from a role player who got red hot and carried his team to victory, coming in the form of Purdue junior guard D.J. Byrd. Byrd, who averages around 7 points a game, had career highs with 24 points and 7 three pointers made. In fact, for a while, I was preparing myself to write about how a team could shoot above 60% against one of the best defensive teams in the nation in their own building. Throughout the game, Ohio State’s defense was simply not clicking.
One thing that did go right in this tightly called game (41 fouls in all, 25 on Purdue) was the Buckeyes wearing out the path to the foul line via Jared Sullinger for the first ten minutes of the second half. Sullinger drew a string of fouls and convereted 9 of his 10 second-half attempts. Sullinger, however, had just four field goals in the game and only one in the second half. The Bucks’ leading scorer, who finished with 18 points and 6 rebounds, also did not score in the final seven minutes. In any other game this season, that would have spelled disaster. Thanks to Buford, it did not in this game. Whereas you can pack a zone tighter and tighter until it is essentially a double team every time Sullinger touches the ball, there is no way to contain all that Buford can do on the wing. His three-point range, ability to rub off a screener with the tightest of curls for mid-range shots, and his fantastic stroke at the free throw line make #44 so immensely important to the Buckeye offense. If the Buckeyes want to avoid becoming one-dimensional on offense down the stretch, Buford is the catalyst to strong perimeter play.
As for the new way the Buckeyes won, it started with the score knotted at 73-73, 4:30 to play, and a unit of Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Buford, Deshaun Thomas, and Evan Ravenel on the floor. Craft picked up his fourth foul with 9:18 to go, and Sullinger picked up a silly fourth with 6:48 left to force Matta to this lineup. Buford started on the left block, curled all the way out to the right wing off a Ravenel pick, and fired a jumper from the right elbow: 75-73 Bucks. After a Thompson block and a near steal on the pass to Buford on the left wing, he fired again from just inside the arc and drilled it: 77-73 OSU. Then came the bucket, after another stop on the defensive end, that put the Bucks in the driver’s seat. The Buckeye senior, coming out of the right corner, took the handoff from Scott, dribbled with his left to the top of the key, jabbed in, gained separation, and barely grazed the rim as his shot slipped through the net to give the Bucks a 80-73 lead with 2:53 to play. With Craft and Sully sitting, everyone knew it was going through Buford. This was William Buford’s moment, and in it, he shined.
Looking ahead, how do the Buckeyes defend the one play that plagued them all game long and led to them surrendering a season-high 84 points? Well, that’s an easier said than done question, but it starts with the opponent’s personnel. The thing that made this simple ball screen at the top of the key so difficult to defend was the screener, Robbie Hummel. With such a capable scorer with range setting that pick, it’s tough to completely hedge on the ball handler as the defender. Purdue’s guards are quick to the hoop, and their shooters were hot and keeping the helpside defense honest. In short, even if you defend that play perfectly, a team shooting 60-plus% is going to make life difficult. Purdue became just the third team to shoot over 50% against Ohio State this season and the third to connect on 11 three pointers. There’s a recipe to beat Ohio State, but it’s hard to get all the right ingredients. If you try that same strategy (taking and making a high volume of three point shots) over and over, you may only succeed 1 or 2 out of 10 tries. Sometimes, it can get really ugly, just ask Wisconsin.
With their first wire-to-wire close game under their belts at home, the Buckeyes extended their home win streak to 39 games, second longest in the nation. They’ll be challenged to push that to the end of the season as Michigan State, Illinois, and Wisconsin all come into Value City Arena before season’s end. The Spartans are up next on Saturday night, and Izzo and company will be looking to grab a share of first place in the conference.
(Photo: Terry Gilliam/AP)