With Sullinger, Buford Back, Sky is the Limit for Next Year’s Buckeyes
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — With a towel draped over his neck, William Buford sat quietly in front of his locker.
A pack of reporters surrounded teammates Jared Sullinger and Jon Diebler just a few feet away, and a few brave and curious writers cautiously circled Buford, waiting for the right moment to ask Ohio State’s star junior about his dreadful shooting night.
The season was over. Inside the locker room, no one was blaming Buford, but inside Buford, he couldn’t help but blame himself.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I know things would have been different if I would have played better, a lot different. That’s the hardest part,” he said after Ohio State’s 62-60 loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
The Buckeyes’ second-leading scorer during the regular season finished with just nine points on 2-of-16 shooting. He missed a chance at redemption when his game-winning three drew front iron before being swatted away by Josh Harrellson.
It was that miss and the 13 others from that game in Newark that stuck with Buford when he made his decision to return to Ohio State for his senior season. That and the return of star freshman Jared Sullinger could give the Buckeyes another great shot at winning the title next season.
“The future is bright for these guys,” departing senior Dallas Lauderdale said after playing his final game at Ohio State.
“The things they’ve been through. They’ve been through a junior-senior type season and they were freshmen.”
Along with Lauderdale, the Buckeyes will also have to replace iron men David Lighty and Jon Diebler, who combined for nearly 10,000 minutes in their college careers. Diebler is coming off a career year in which he shot over 50 percent from behind the arc, but Thad Matta has another wave of talented players heading to Columbus this fall.
“The young guys we have here and the young guys we have coming in, the sky is the limit for them,” said Lighty, who came in with Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. back in 2006.
The 2011 class isn’t as highly-touted as the “Thad Five,” but it does have five talented players, including McDonald’s All-American Shannon Scott. A 6-2 point guard out of Alpharetta, Ga., Scott brings a different style of play than Aaron Craft, who should slide into the starting lineup after playing the role of sixth man last season.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Along with Sullinger and Buford, Craft rounds out three of the five starters for Matta this fall, and it’s possible that classmate Deshaun Thomas could also slide from the bench into the starting lineup. Known for his quick trigger, Thomas is oozing with potential if the coaching staff can find a way to harness it. He averaged 7.5 points in just 14 minutes per game last season and is an elite offensive rebounder along with his ability to score inside and out.
Much like Buford as a youngster out of Toledo Libby, Thomas has had to learn the defensive and teamwork parts of basketball after his career as the No. 3 all-time scorer in Indiana high school history. His versatility to play either the three or the four makes him a likely candidate to start as a sophomore, but Matta will have some other options as well.
Guard Jordan Sibert showed some promise towards the end of last season, but he will have to fend off incoming wings Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross. The Buckeyes could also decide to go “big” with their starting lineup by playing Sullinger next to Amir Williams, a 6-9 forward out Beverly Hills, Mich.
“We can be real good. We’ll be real athletic, we’ll be bigger. I don’t know if we can replace the seniors we have right now, but we’ll be real good,” said Buford, who passed up a chance at the NBA for one last run at Ohio State.
“We’ve just got to get the job done and make sure when the younger guys come in we lead them the right way.”
One of the toughest things to recreate from last season’s team will be the camaraderie in the locker room. The 2010 class seemed to fit right in with the groundwork that had already been laid, and it was easy to see how much the guys in that locker room really enjoyed each other.
“The love we had. The special bond. It was just great,” said Sullinger, whose playful attitude fit right in with the likes of Lauderdale, Buford and Lighty.
“It was great, the way we cherished each other’s time and the way we played around. The little games we had. I’m going to miss those guys.”
So is Thad Matta.
As tough as it was to lose Oden, Conley and Daequan Cook after just one season in Columbus, the trio of Lighty, Diebler and Lauderdale has left a lasting impact on Ohio State basketball over the last four or five seasons.
Diebler’s outside shooting and Lighty’s defensive tenacity will be hard to replace, as will the leadership provided by all three seniors. The return of Buford and Sullinger will offset some of that, but the Buckeyes will also need a big contribution from the other returning sophomores as well as the incoming freshmen.
“As long as they come in focused and ready to use this as motivation,” Lighty said.
“As long as they don’t slack off, I think they could be right back in this position next year.”
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