As the Buckeyes put together a 34-2 record entering Friday night's contest with Kentucky, they displayed a cohesive unit that had a number of explosive options. There were legitimate top-notch scoring threats both on the perimeter and in the paint and that kind of balance figured to make OSU a tough out come tournament time.
That much proved true, but it took a truly rough night from Buford for the Buckeyes to stumble. When your second-leading scorer is ice-cold from the field and your leading scorer – Jared Sullinger – is frustrated all night long by a player in Josh Harrellson who somewhat surprisingly proved to be his equal, it is going to be awfully tough to win games.
The surprise here is that Buford's performance was so off. Before the tournament started, the junior talked to me about wanting to step into the spotlight and become the go-to guy for the team. Given the way he had played down the stretch, I began to believe that he was capable of making that sort of transition.
The mind-set is clearly there. The hallmark of a good shooter is one who remains firm in the belief that if 10 straight shots have rimmed out, the 11th is the one that will go in. That proved true to Buford, who also did not let his rough offensive night affect his performance on the defensive end.
So it was that when Buford let his final shot off for the chance to win the game, I truly believed it was going in. So did he. And then it didn't, and suddenly the season was over.
Four years ago, a talented OSU team came one clutch three-pointer from being bounced before it even reached the Sweet 16. Ron Lewis hit his and Buford did not. Buford has grown into a game-changing player for the Buckeyes, and not many teams can afford to having such a player be so cold from the field.
He was far from the only reason the Buckeyes were unable to advance to the Elite 8, but unfortunately for Buford he was near the top of the list.
I think … that disappointing as it is, one loss should not completely define what this team accomplished.
So much of the NCAA Tournament is about matchups. One unfavorable one and a season's worth of accomplishments are rendered moot. When the Buckeyes faced Xavier in the 2006-07 tournament, head coach Thad Matta said it was the potential game that concerned him the most because of how the Musketeers could match up with them.
OSU found a way to win that one, obviously. Just because the same can not be said this year does not diminish the significance of winning the Big Ten outright as well as the conference tournament. This is a team that got every team's best shot, night in and night out, and handled it all admirably.
There is a sense of unfinished business with this team, but it has to be diminished when you look at the picture from a broad vantage point. Not many teams would lose a player like Evan Turner and put together this kind of season.
I think … aside from Buford's struggles, another huge key for the win was the play of Harrellson in the post against Jared Sullinger.
The OSU freshman finished with a game-high 21 points, but 11 of those came via offensive rebounds. The 6-10, 275-pound senior did not let the 6-9, 280-pound freshman establish position on the offensive end and managed to come up with a handful of rebounds that Sullinger would usually pull down.
Part of the reason the Buckeyes have been so able to get open looks from deep this season has been Sullinger's ability to draw the double team in the post. That did not happen in this game, and as a result the Wildcats were able to extend their defense and contest more jumpers.
Prime example: down one with about a minute to go, the Buckeyes were unable to get off a jumper and dumped it into Sullinger with the shot clock waning. Unable to shake Harrellson, the freshman forced the only shot he could come up with: a turnaround jumper from the baseline that hit the side of the backboard.
It was a crippling play at a moment when someone needed to get a shot that at least had a chance to go in and it was thanks to Harrellson's ability to stymie Sullinger.
I think … that there is one huge stat aside from Buford's shooting numbers that points out why Kentucky was able to win.
For the game, the Wildcats blocked 11 shots – the most of any OSU opponent this season. Florida State swatted 10 attempts by the Buckeyes, who gritted out the victory in that contest thanks to their defense.
Even at a 32.8-percent success rate from the field, that is at least three more baskets for the Buckeyes should those shots not be rejected. That means a four-point win instead of a two-point loss. Not only that, but the Wildcats clearly affected OSU's shots as the game went on.
One play sticks out in particular: a miss by David Lighty near the hoop when he went for a tough scoop shot rather than the simple layup when he appeared to have a clear path. The threat of a rapidly closing Kentucky defender changed Lighty's plans, and the result was a miss from close range.
I think … that this is proving to be the hardest column I've had to write all season because I really did not believe I would be writing it anytime soon.
This was the most enjoyable team I have covered in my career as a sports writer. Each guy on this team was engaging in his own way and you could tell there was a true bond among the Buckeyes. While every team talks about being like a family, this team truly seemed to appreciate that.
In this profession, it is rare to end a season wishing you had more opportunities to write about a certain team or group of players. By that point, you are usually desperate for story ideas and will grasp for anything you can string together until you can move onto the next team/sport/whatever.
That is truly not the case with this year's team. There were still features that I was looking forward to writing and angles worth developing that are now rendered moot. When you get down to it, this was just a great group of guys who were enjoyable to write about.