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Published: Wednesday, 2/29/2012

COMMENTARY

Fair or unfair, Buford focus of criticism

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Ohio State basketball fans bid farewell to William Buford last Sunday. And, although he wasn't a part of Senior Day festivities in Columbus, sophomore Jared Sullinger probably said his good-byes too.

Both toyed with leaving a year ago for the NBA. Both returned, laying the foundation for another spectacular season for the Buckeyes.

It hasn't played out that way. Not that a 23-6 record heading into a game Wednesday at Northwestern is anything to hold your nose over, but this OSU team has never worked up a head of steam in Big Ten play and the outright regular-season crown is Michigan State's to lose at this point.

Sure, both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments are down the road, but there seems to be a chemistry issue at the worst possible time. Coach Thad Matta had a belly-full of it last Saturday when he kicked his entire team out of practice. A day later, after losing 63-60 to visiting Wisconsin, Matta seemed uncharacteristically discouraged.

A lot of Buckeye fans have laid a lot of their discouragement at Buford's feet. It is both fair and unfair, but that's the kind of player the Libbey High product is. Despite his 128 starts, an OSU record, fans still don't feel as if they really know the Toledoan or what they might get from him.

It is sort of the enigma of Buford. Will being Will, they call it in Columbus, although I'm not sure anybody knows exactly what that means.

Buford has always played with a poker face that belies his passion for the game. Get him alone sitting at his locker and out comes a beautiful smile, a playfulness, and a freewheeling conversation that leaves no question of how important his school, his team, and his game is to him.

But fans rarely see that Will. They see the game face, the raw data, and the results. For example, in OSU's last six games, Buford has scored 29, 4, 26, 6, 17 and 15 points.

The Buckeyes have won three and lost three and you can pretty much figure out which were which.

Buford attempts a team-high 13 shots per game, yet his field goal percentage (.432) ranks ninth. He and Deshaun Thomas, OSU's two outside guns, have scored an identical 437 points, but Buford has taken 58 more shots. Needless to say, it has been an uneven season.

Still, to paint Buford the culprit isn't right.

Sullinger has shed some bulk since last season, perhaps to prove to the NBA that he can play facing the basket. In turn, he has been less formidable in the post and his points and rebounds are both slightly down from a year ago.

It may be a chicken-or-egg proposition, but is Sullinger not working as hard for the ball or just not getting the touches? He has taken 293 shots compared to a combined 696 attempts by Buford and Thomas.

More likely, what Ohio State is missing is what Ohio State is missing -- namely Jon Diebler and David Lighty -- from a season ago.

Diebler shot .502 from 3-point range and that percentage becomes even more stunning when you remember that he had 227 attempts. Lighty was the heart and soul of the team, the glue, and among the most relentless defensive players in the Big Ten.

This Buckeye team is in need of some glue, and some outside shooting, as it prepares to bid for a third straight Big Ten tournament title and a third consecutive run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA.

OSU has not looked capable of either, at least with any consistency, in recent weeks. But who is to say Buford still can't wave good-bye on his own terms?

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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