For the past three seasons, William Buford has supposed to be the missing piece of the puzzle; the final element of a national championship winning formula that would put Ohio State over the top and exorcize some of the demons that have infested our sports programs that apparently all practice over ancient Indian burial grounds.
That hasn't happened. In big games, most notably against Kentucky last year, Big Willy Style becomes more Code Red and less He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper. It's unfortunate, because otherwise Buford's stats suggest a pretty terrific collegiate career: in the past three years he's averaged nearly 15 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and fewer than two turnovers per game. When all is said and done, he'll be near the top of several Ohio State records, and deservedly so.
Still, there are a few major things that continue to hold him back, and it is getting to the point where Ohio State fans and the coaching staff needs to accept that at this point in his career, Will Buford isn't going to evolve into Evan Turner 2.0. He is who he is, in all of his crotch grabbing, sass-giving, erratic jump shooting glory. And that's fine; he still can be (and must be) a critical part of the current OSU machine.
But he isn't going to be the team's MVP on anything but some very random and hopefully opportune nights during the basketball season, and it's only during this year that the reasons behind this are really starting to emerge. In past years, gaps in Buford's game were covered up by his teammates. Not this year. Now, those glaring problems are evident for all to see, and it seems like they're likely to continue unless other members of the team can hide them once more.
First, let's take a look at last season, where Buford averaged 14.4 points and hit over 44% of his threes. Both pretty great numbers, and he was the perfect compliment to a relentless inside scoring threat in the person of Jared Sullinger and a deadeye marksman named Jon Diebler. If he ended up having an off night, no big deal, you had other guys who could pick up his slack. In narrow victories against Minnesota, Illinois, and Northwestern last season, Buford was a combined 8-33 shooting for a total of 23 points. We could shrug that off in wins, but in losses, especially against Purdue (1-5, 7 points) and Kentucky (2-16, 9 points), his lack of contribution cost Ohio State the game.
The common thread in all of these games is his poor three point shooting. When you hit as many threes as Buford was last year, you might have a tendency to over rely on them, and in his worst games Buford was 5-17 from three, good for 29% and 15 points lower than his season average.
This season continues that trend. Buford is averaging 15.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game, but it's arguable that he's actually playing worse then he did last year. In loses against Kansas and Indiana, he was a combined 11-30 (not terrible) and was 1-8 from three point range (terrible). And it's not just loses in which he's been utterly ineffective from three; in blowout wins he can be similarly awful (going 2-15 against Lamar, Nebraska, and Iowa, for example)
Here's what I think is happening: Buford is watching tape of himself against Valpo, where he scored 25 points and was 4-4 from three, and Northwestern, where he scored 28 points and was 5-7 from three, and assumes that that's his game now. It's not. Those are aberrations, and if the Buckeyes find themselves relying on that version of William Buford, they're likely to see more games like that against Kentucky, because it's pretty evident at this point that he is not a guy you can rely on to be either your primary scoring threat or your primary long range threat.
Two things need to happen: one, for the coaching staff and other guys on the team to acknowledge that Buford is fundamentally a streaky jack of all trades, and not someone you can lean on for consistent points. This isn't the knock on Buford that it appears to be, however. He's a great player who can bring a lot to the floor on any given night. The problem is that you never really know what night that's going to be.
Two, other players need to step up and fill the roles that Buford was supposed to occupy this season. In the past nine games Deshaun Thomas has actually been one of OSU's most consistent and accurate shooters, and it might be time to let the Microwave do his thing on a more regular basis. Thomas has made a huge effort to find his shot and to understand his game, and it has clearly been paying off. Matta also needs to find a relatively consistent three point shooter. Aaron Craft was supposed to have made an effort in the offseason to become that guy, but so far that hasn't panned out. It's difficult to see who on the team has a chance to become that guy, but someone needs to emerge.
OSU's problems do not start or end with William Buford, and I don't mean to downplay the very obvious strengths that this team has. But if the goal this season is to win a national championship, the Ohio State Buckeyes must become a much more complete team than they are right now, and that begins with acknowledging that William Buford is going to be both a godsend and a liability down the stretch.