Former Libbey High School and current Ohio State Buckeye William Buford, right, walks off the court with OSU teammate David Lighty. ASSOCIATED PRESS EnlargeINDIANAPOLIS — William Buford had the Buckeyes' backs Saturday, which is why Ohio State will play in the Big Ten tournament championship game Sunday for the third straight season.
He had David Lighty's back and Aaron Craft's back on defense when the two got in early foul trouble, and OSU needed somebody to lock up Tim Hardaway, Jr., of Michigan.
And he had Jared Sullinger's back in the second half when things got a little more physical than Buford figured was appropriate.
Will doesn't go looking for trouble, but he didn't shy away from it on this occasion, and the Buckeyes responded with a surge of intensity that finished off a 16-0 run en route to a 68-61 win over Michigan at Conseco Fieldhouse.
Buford, the OSU junior from Toledo, said he has "never seen anybody get beat up like Sully. I can't believe how well he handles it. He takes it so well night after night. Other teams are always messing with him, pounding on him, hacking him. He's a nice kid, and I get a little tired of it. That thing today, that was kind of dirty."
Ohio State had ripped off five straight points to open a 52-45 lead when Michigan's Darius Morris missed a layup with 7:44 to play.
Sullinger went up for the rebound and got tied up with UM's Jordan Morgan, who went to the floor, wrapped an arm around one of Sullinger's legs, and didn't seem inclined to disengage.
When Morgan did get up, he found Buford in his face. A push from one led to a shove from the other, Sullinger got a bit animated, Michigan's players were pouring onto the floor for a timeout huddle, and the Ohio State players were suddenly surrounded before calm heads prevailed.
Sullinger, who is 6-feet-9, 280 pounds and doesn't need much help defending himself, said he nonetheless appreciated Buford coming to his defense.
"He knows I have his back," Buford said. "Everybody has everybody's back. Our teams at Libbey were really tight. This is probably the closest team I've seen in college. Plus, that ticked me off. It made me more aggressive looking for my shot.
"And, obviously, it fired up the whole team."
Craft responded with a 3-point shot, Buford hit three straight jumpers, and Craft capped the run with two free throws for an 18-point lead with 4:49 to play.
The Buckeyes didn't exactly finish it off with aplomb, but the damage was done to the Wolverines as top-ranked OSU bumped its record to 31-2.
Earlier, the Buckeyes faced their biggest issue — depth — when Craft and Lighty, OSU's top perimeter defenders, were both on the bench with two fouls at the midway point of the first half.
Deshaun Thomas and little-used Jordan Sibert came up big, but nothing was bigger than the job Buford did on Michigan's Hardaway, who had six points by halftime. Lighty picked up his third foul just 20 seconds into the second half, and Buford went back on Hardaway and kept him fairly quiet.
"I just tried to keep everybody up and playing hard," Buford said.
The 6-5 junior rarely drew accolades for defense during his career at Libbey.
His scoring and rebounding numbers drew much more notice. But performances like the one Saturday don't surprise Lighty.
"It's been 360 degrees," Lighty said, probably meaning 180 degrees.
"When Will came here it was, ‘Let me come off a curl and shoot.' But I've seen him progress to where he wants to guard the other team's best guy. For us to be effective, he's learned it doesn't have to be just his scoring."
But there is plenty of that, too, as the Buckeyes advanced to meet surprising Penn State, which has taken out Wisconsin and Michigan State in the last two days. Buford matched Jon Diebler's 16 points for team scoring honors, making 7 of 15 from the field.
Yes, Buford had the Buckeyes' backs in every regard.
But for how much longer? A four-year college stop is a rarity these days for players capable of moving to the next level and Buford's play over the second half of this season has certainly boosted his NBA stock.
A big tournament run would do more of the same.
He said it was the first time he'd been asked about it, but he had an answer at the ready: "I don't plan on leaving, but you never know what the rest of this season could lead to. I'll just have to see, talk to my coach, and go from there.
"But it's not on my mind. We play for a championship [today], then we'll be playing for the NCAA. Those are the only things I'm focused on."
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.