COLUMBUS - William Buford is not sure he even knows that guy who walked into Value City Arena a year ago, filled with an internal tug-of-war pitting energy and exuberance against anxiety and nervousness.
That college freshman, who had been the best player on the floor in nearly every one of the hundreds of basketball games he played in since middle school, was suddenly just one of a dozen such stars, with a lesser glow than most. At Ohio State, he expected to slip into a supplemental role for the first time in his life, and be watching and learning a lot more than playing.
But an injury to junior David Lighty early in the season thrust Buford, a three-time City League player of the year who was Ohio's Mr. Basketball as a senior at Libbey, into a prominent place in the lineup.
"All of a sudden, when Dave went down, we threw William Buford into a role and said 'we need you to be good right away,'" Ohio State coach Thad Matta said yesterday at Ohio State's media day.
"I think it really opened his eyes. William improved his shot selection, he got better at taking care of the basketball, and he worked hard at everything we asked him to do. He handled it all pretty well."
Buford went on to average almost 30 minutes of playing time per game as Ohio State went 22-11 overall and 10-8 in the Big Ten. He averaged 11.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game.
"You try and prepare yourself, but when you come in as a freshman, you don't really know what to expect," Buford said.
"Everything is so different - the practices, the conditioning, the travel, and especially the level of competition - it's a big adjustment. I wasn't sure where I'd fit in on the team last year. I was a little more timid. I was afraid about not knowing what the coach wanted and what he didn't want."
Buford quickly picked up on the expectations the Buckeyes had for him, and he scored in double figures in 20 of Ohio State's last 26 games, shot 85 percent from the foul line, and won Big Ten freshman of the year honors.
"He just kept getting better and better and better as the season went on," Ohio State teammate Jon Diebler said.
"For a guy to just jump right in there as a freshman, right out of high school, and put up the numbers he did - that was phenomenal. Will grew up a lot in a hurry, and he did it against some really tough competition."
Buford said that although the names on the Ohio State roster have not changed - the Buckeyes return all five starters from last year as part of the 11 lettermen they have back - this is a very different team in terms of experience and security.
"That's very rare that a college team has all of its guys coming back, with no freshmen, but that's our situation and it's exciting to be part of it," he said. "I'm just so much more comfortable this year, after having been through a whole season here. I'm really relaxed, and excited about getting the season started. It's a completely different feeling than coming in as a freshman."
The Buckeyes got a jump on things with an August trip to Canada, where they won three games against Canadian university teams. Ohio State starts formal preseason practice this evening and will play Walsh University in an exhibition game at Value City Arena on Nov. 4 before opening the season Nov. 9 at home against Alcorn State as part of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer.
"We've played a lot of basketball together, so the chemistry is really good right now," Buford said. "I think we're starting out way ahead of where we were at this point a year ago. For me, there's just a whole new comfort level."
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William Buford is not sure he even knows that guy who walked into Value City Arena a year ago, filled with an internal tug-of-war pitting energy and exuberance against anxiety and nervousness.