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NEW ORLEANS -- William Buford cradled the East Regional championship trophy with extreme caution -- as if it were a child. As he strolled into the victorious Ohio State locker room at Boston TD Garden on Sunday, the wide smile across the Buckeyes' lone senior's face told the story of relief.
After four rollercoaster seasons, Buford is at the sport's pinnacle -- the Final Four.
Second-seeded Ohio State plays No. 2 seed Kansas at 9:15 p.m. Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The winner will face the winner of Kentucky-Louisville on Monday night in the national championship game.
"It feels great," Buford said of advancing to the Final Four. "To make it this far is a relief to know that hard work pays off."
Buford arrived at Ohio State as a prized recruit -- the reigning Mr. Basketball from Libbey High School -- in a Top 5 recruiting class. For the Buckeyes and the wunderkind from Toledo, the future seemed to be an endless sight of green grass and blue, sunny skies.
Storm clouds soon rolled in, though, in the form of consecutive Sweet 16 exits and inconsistency for Buford.
Columbus was thought to be a stopover on the way to NBA riches. But twice Buford spurned earnings for his teammates and love of college basketball. Along the way, he's etched his name high atop most of the OSU career records.
Buford has started all but nine games in his career, which has contributed to 1,971 points, fourth all-time and just 19 points shy of the legendary Jerry Lucas. He has also accomplished the rare feat of 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, and 300 assists in a career, becoming the fourth Buckeye to do so.
Buford's talents aren't limited to the basketball court, however. He is also a finalist for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award, given annually to the senior student-athlete who excels on and off the court.
Still, despite all the good Buford has contributed in and away from basketball, his days at Ohio State, fair or unfair, are still defined by a two of 16 shooting performance against Kentucky in last season's regional semifinal.
His senior campaign has done little to push aside those thoughts. While there have been shining moments -- a career-high 29 points against Purdue and 25 points at Michigan State, including the game-winner to clinch a share of the conference championship -- it's the lows that stick out.
An ill-advised shot to end the game at Indiana on New Year's Eve, four total points in a home-loss to Michigan State, a late-game Buckeye collapse on Senior Day versus Wisconsin and on and on.
Ohio State's William Buford takes a shot in the Buckeyes' win over Syracuse in the Elite 8. He struggled from the field shooting, but managed to grab a team-high nine rebounds for the Buckeyes.
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Since Buford's performance in East Lansing on the last day of the regular season, he has shot 25 of 78 (32 percent) from the field.
"For William, anytime there appears to be trouble, the blame has to go somewhere," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "Like I've always said, I wish it would go to me and not the players."
Buford referred to the highs and lows of his senior season as "crazy." But even as his shot production declines -- his field goal and 3-point percentages are career lows -- he finds other avenues to contribute.
In the Sweet 16 against Cincinnati, Buford offset one made shot, four turnovers, and a missed dunk by locking down the Bearcats' leading scorer, Sean Kilpatrick, prompting Matta to call it, "the best defense in his career." He also found an opportune moment to make his only shot of the game, a 3-pointer no less, when Cincinnati grabbed a four-point lead in the second half.
Two nights later produced another off night from the field, but once again Buford filled up the stat sheet in a different capacity by pulling down a team-high nine rebounds.
"My teammates are always trying to lift me up when I'm having bad games," he said. "You really can't press too much. It gets frustrating, but you have to keep on playing and try to help out in other ways."
Prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament, the popular line of thinking went that Ohio State could not reach the Final Four without Buford raising his level of play. Those theories went out the window as Deshaun Thomas emerged as the Buckeyes' second option on offense.
Buford has consistently kept a positive attitude and willingness to take on multiple roles, winning him legions of admirers and praise from his teammates.
"Sometimes you see players change and get down on themselves or start to doubt themselves, but Will hasn't changed one bit," sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr., said. "I remember prior to the Michigan State game, Will had some bad games, but, lo and behold, we got the ball to him and he came through in the clutch."
Said Buford, "We've been winning. That's all that matters to me."
If the Buckeyes get two more victories, Buford's name won't just appear in the career stats lists, it'll also hang from a national championship banner and be remembered for an awfully long time.
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