According the Dante Buford, the ball bounced back up perfectly into the sweet spot as the shot clocked ticked away inside Hilton Coliseum late Monday night. Even before he pulled up for a shot clock-beating 3-pointer over Iowa State’s Georges Niang with his foot just inches away from the logo at center court, he knew it was going in the basket.
That’s how he remembers it. For Buford right now, that’s all that really matters.
Oklahoma needs that kind of confidence from Buford. And he needs it too: The confidence that he can throw in a 45-footer – and one that wasn’t a desperation heave but an up-and-down jump shot.
“It’s confidence as much as anything else,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “It’s confidence shooting the ball. When you make shots, everything else gets better. It makes his confidence go up. His energy level goes up. He’s improved. He’s making shots.”
This time last year, Buford was just about anything but confident.
There were times when he was down on himself after having to sit out the entire first semester and be completely removed from the team. He was sluggish in practices during the second semester, and there were days when he just didn’t want to do anything.
He didn’t have the work ethic that has become so common for the rest of Oklahoma’s roster.
It was really a fight to keep his spirits up, because all along, Oklahoma thought that Buford was someone who could help immediately off the bench.
“He’s got a whole different walk about himself,” said Oklahoma assistant coach Chris Crutchfield, who was Buford’s primary recruiter out of high school. “. . . Sometimes, you need some positive stuff to happen just to have a chance to say, ‘I’m OK. I can do it.’ I think that validated him against Iowa State in that kind of environment.
“If he can do it in the Hilton Coliseum like he did the other day, he should be able to do it anywhere.”
When Oklahoma (15-2, 4-2) needed a punch off the bench, Buford was there to provide a little scoring. In the past two games, Buford has scored 23 points. In the previous 15 games, Buford had just 31 points. After not playing against Iowa State in Norman, Buford played 16 minutes and was a perfect 4-for-4 from behind the 3-point arc.
The undersized Buford still is learning the defensive aspect of the game. He got lost on the defensive end after hitting his half-court shot, and Niang – his man – nailed a 3-pointer to cancel out all momentum from Buford’s shot.
But he’s made progress from a year ago – significant progress.
“It’s pleasing just to know where he was at this time last year,” Crutchfield said. “We weren’t sure if he was going to make it: Having to come in under those circumstances and sit out. You’re finally seeing the light go off and him make some progress. . . . We always knew he had potential. He just needed maturity and growing up and realizing that he can do it.”
Buddy Hield encourages Buford to shoot all the time, telling him to never pass up an open shot. Buford has seen how hard work has paid off for Hield and Ryan Spangler, who preaches the importance of confidence to Buford. He has started to put in the time, too.
Buford’s minutes have increased. He’s played at least ten minutes in each of the past three games and seven of the last nine. He’s more comfortable in his role in the offense – coming off the bench at the 4 position and providing timely shots and defensive intensity.
“It was just a matter of going out and doing what I know I could do,” Buford said. “Once everything started clicking, that’s when I’ve been able to play like myself.”