Starting Five: Buckeyes Host Badgers on Senior Day
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — After suffering a loss at No. 11 Michigan (21-7, 11-4) a week ago, Ohio State men’s basketball team (23-5, 11-4) bounced back with a 83-67 win over Illinois on Tuesday.
The No. 8-ranked Buckeyes are still control their own fate in the Big Ten championship race, but will first have to take care of No. 16 Wisconsin (20-8, 9-6) on Sunday after a 4 p.m. tip-off that will air live on CBS.
Bye Bye Buford
Sunday will also mark the last home game for Ohio State guard William Buford, who will be celebrating his Senior Day. After the early exit of B.J. Mullens, who declared for the NBA Draft after one season in Columbus, and the transfers of Anthony Crater and Walter Offutt, Buford is the lone player remaining from OSU coach Thad Matta’s 2008 recruiting class.
“We’ve joked about it. It’s kind of like the last man standing,” Matta said.
“Being with him for four years, I know he cares, I know he wants to play well. If I thought differently, then I’d have major concerns. But nobody wants him to play his best basketball as much as he does, and I’m probably second in line there.”
Buford, who admitted on Friday that staying in Columbus for four years wasn’t his original plan, said that he can’t believe that his OSU career is getting ready to come to an end.
“It flew by to me,” he said.
“I’m going to miss everybody. The fans and everybody and the school atmosphere, but most importantly my teammates and coaches. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Sullinger Staying Or Going?
While Buford will be the sole Buckeye honored on Sunday, he might not be the only one playing in his final game at Value City Arena. Ohio State sophomore forward Jared Sullinger is projected to be a top-10 pick in this June’s NBA Draft, although Matta said that his leading-scorer and rebounder is yet to make a decision regarding his future.
“I don’t know,” Matta said. “We haven’t talked about. I think there’s a possibility that it could be. I hope it isn’t.”
Sullinger would have likely been a top-five pick in last year’s draft, but opted to return to school for one more year. Matta said the Columbus-native’s NBA future has been anything but a distraction to the Buckeyes this year.
“To Jared’s credit, it hasn’t even been discussed,” Matta said.
“Which is exactly what I asked him to do, and I think he’s done a really good job with that.”
Time To Go Streaking
In each of the past two seasons, Matta’s teams have entered the Big Ten Tournament on the heels of a four-game winning streak. After beating Illinois on Tuesday, winning their three remaining games would send the Buckeyes into Indianapolis with similar momentum, something Matta said was important for this year’s squad.
“The one thing you can never do is underestimate your competition. And obviously, the Big Ten is really, really good this year,” Matta said.
“The last undefeated team was in 1976 in college basketball, so you know what I’m saying, it’s hard. But that’s what we do.”
Despite recent losses to Michigan and Michigan State, OSU point guard Aaron Craft said that the Buckeyes’ remaining regular-season games could play a crucial role in making up for earlier disappointments.
“Right when you’re going through it, it’s kind of tough to look at the big picture,” OSU Craft said.
“There’s still time left and there’s still time for us to get better. There’s no need to get down on one another.”
Big Ten Title Hopes
Winning their remaining regular season games would also clinch a share of a third-consecutive Big Ten title, an award that Matta said can go under-appreciated in this day and age.
“That’s probably the hardest thing to accomplish,” Matta said. “From the standpoint of nine home games, nine away games, you’re a great league.”
Despite the importance Ohio State’s head coach places on regular season championships, Matta said there’s no need to bring it up yet, since his players already know what is on the line.
“We really don’t talk about it,” OSU’s eighth-year coach said.
“These guys know we have a great challenge on Sunday. There’s really no need to because if we don’t lose and we don’t play well, then it’s a moot point.”
Scouting The Badgers
Standing in the Buckeyes’ way of that third conference title in as many years is a Badgers team that is coming off an upset loss at Iowa on Thursday. OSU has already defeated Wisconsin once this season—a 58-52 win on Feb. 4 in Madison—but Buford said that the Buckeyes won’t be underestimating the Badgers on Sunday.
“They’re going come in and give us all they got, which is what every team does,” Buford said.
“We just have to sustain it, execute our gameplan, and just try to play together.”
Wisconsin is led by preseason All-American point guard Jordan Taylor, who is averaging 14.1 points per game in his senior season. Rather than coming out and trying to outperform Taylor—or any other player on Sunday—Buford said that his mission for a successful Senior Day is simple.
“My bar is set to win the game,” Buford said.
“We want to get a No. 1 seed and win the Big Ten.”