out annually by The Associated Press that signifies the top prep player
in the state.
At times, William Buford has wanted to be like all of them on the basketball court. Now he’s in their company forever.
Wednesday evening the smooth and sometimes unstoppable 6-5 guard from Toledo Libbey was named Ohio’s “Mr. Basketball,” a prestigious award given out annually by The Associated Press that signifies the top prep player in the state.
Buford was overwhelmed when he got the good news, a phone call from Bucknuts.com.
“Man, that’s crazy,” he said and then repeated. “How do I feel? I can’t even explain it. That’s crazy.”
Buford was not completely shocked, though. He knew he was a top candidate along with another Ohio State signee, 7-1 center B.J. Mullens of Canal Winchester. Others who were in the running included 6-9 power forward Yancy Gates of Cincinnati Withrow, 7-0 center Kenny Frease of Massillon Perry and 5-10 point guard Anthony Hitchens of Chillicothe.
Gates is signed with the University of Cincinnati, Frease is headed to Xavier and Hitchens is promised to Akron, but it’s doubtful anyone is going to claim politics this year. Buford and Mullens not only are future Buckeye teammates, they were the most dominant players in the state this season. They’ve been keeping in touch on the phone playfully teasing each other about the award and made it clear to whoever asked them that they wanted to win the coveted plaque.
Still, Buford was in awe of the feat at first.
“It’s such an accomplishment, being the best player in Ohio,” he told Bucknuts.com while traveling to Columbus with his team to play in a Division II state semifinal Thursday morning. “I don’t know what put it over the top – maybe that we’re still playing. It’s a guess because I don’t know how they voted. I really don’t care too much because now I got it.”
Buford and Mullens figured to be neck-and-neck for the award given their fantastic senior seasons and already well-earned national reputations as topflight recruits. Mullens ranked No. 6 nationally in the Class of 2008 according to the ESPN 150; Buford was just behind at No. 11.
Mullens led Canal to a Division II district title and averaged 26.2 points per game as a senior. He also was the top rebounder in the area with more than 14 per game and shot right on 70 percent from the field. Some pegged him as the front-runner for “Mr. Basketball” honors after he scored 62 points in a game against Centereach (N.Y.) Our Savior New American in an event in Dayton in mid-January.
Buford, though, was with him step for step. He averaged 22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists a game during the regular season while collecting his third consecutive Toledo City League player of the year award from The Toledo Blade. He shot 62 percent from the field, 46 percent from three-point range and 77 percent at the free-throw line.
Earlier in the week, Buford and Mullens were named co-Division II players of the year. That made tonight’s announcement even more dramatic. The AP said that Buford topped Mullens “narrowly” in the “Mr. Basketball” voting.
“I’m very excited for both guys,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said Monday with the award looming. “I think both of them had tremendous senior years. For William – I got to see him play the other night – the opportunity to get to The Schott and you’re 64 minutes away from a state championship, I couldn’t be happier for him. We like those guys who come from winning programs and hopefully he’ll come down here and have a great tournament.”
The Cowboys went 21-2 last year as Buford put up 28.4 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. However, they lost in a district final to familiar rival Toledo St. John’s despite 31 points, nine rebounds and four assists from Buford.
He and fellow seniors Julius Wells and Brad Sandridge dedicated themselves to guiding Libbey to the state tournament this season and admittedly were almost obsessive about the idea. Thursday morning at 10:45 a.m. their dream will become a reality when Libbey (23-2) plays in the first semifinal of the day at Value City Arena against undefeated St. Paris Graham (26-0), the same team that knocked out Mullens and Canal last week in a regional semi.
“This is just about all we’ve talked about,” Buford said of making it to Columbus. “Mr. Basketball, that’s great, but I won’t even be thinking about it on the court. My teammates will be happy for me but we don’t really care too much about it at the moment. We’re coming to win states.
“This is a real exciting time for us. We’re 100 percent confident. There’s no message to send other than to win. This is going to be about playing together and listening to Coach (Leroy Bates).”
When asked who he’s most close to on the team, Buford said, “All of them. We’re like a family.”
Much of that is a byproduct of the unselfish attitude of Buford, who has taken less shots this season with the intent of getting everyone else involved.
“I feel like I’m doing real good with that this season,” he said. “I’m just trying to be much more of a leader. I’ve been working on distributing the ball more, playing better defense. It’s paid off.”
Bates is among the impressed.
“What I’m going to miss the most after he’s gone is his work ethic and the example he’s set for the rest of the kids,” the coach told The Blade. “In these four years I don’t think he’s missed one practice.
“I’ll also miss his quiet leadership. Sometimes, when I can’t get a point across to the guys, I’ve asked William to talk to them because he gets so much respect. One time he asked me, ‘Why do you want me to talk to them?’ I told him, ‘If they don’t listen to you, you know they’re not going to listen to me.’
“It goes back to his loyalty,” Bates added, “and he’s actually loyal to a fault. He really wants everybody on this team to get that next opportunity to play in college just like he’s got. Whatever it takes to make that happen, he’s willing to do it to help his teammates, because he knows he can shine at any point.”
On the court, Buford also has the ability to be in the center of attention without always being the one to pull the trigger.
“He makes the players around him better,” Bates said. “William is just smooth. He’s a proficient scorer, and it’s not likes he’s taking 20 shots a game.”
Still, there’s no doubt he can light it up when needed.
Sinewy yet strong, quick yet fluid, Buford can do it all with the ball in his hands and can score from anywhere on the hardwood.
“William is a very gifted offensive player, can score in a variety of ways, can shoot the ball, can handle the ball, drives it and has a step-back (shot),” Matta said when Buford signed with OSU in November. “It’s good because of his size. He’s 6-5, long, just really has a great scorer’s mind. He’s very productive.”
Buford was a star by his sophomore season of high school. He averaged 22.7 points and 10.0 rebounds per game that season for the Cowboys. He also played on one of the most competitive AAU teams in the nation, the D-1 Greyhounds, which featured Mayo, now a superstar at USC, and Bill Walker, a key player for Kansas State.
“I always felt like I played with and against the best competition in the country,” Buford said. “I feel like I’ve been working for this ever since my sophomore year.”
Buford has been compared throughout his career to Jackson, the former Toledo Macomber star and Ohio State All-American who recently completed a lengthy career in the NBA. It’s safe to say the youngster doesn’t mind the comparison.
Jackson recently told the Free Press he likes the association as well since the two are now considered the best City League players ever from the Toledo area. Jackson is the league’s all-time leading scorer with 2,328 points and Buford now ranks second with 2,009.
“I’m glad he stayed within the city schools as a public school graduate,” said Jackson, who won the original Ohio “Mr. Basketball” award in 1988 and again in ’89. “It means a lot because a lot of your top talent now is taken out of the city and going to the more private schools, so I’m glad to see that he decided to stay. Also, it showed that you can get a quality education, get your diploma and get accepted to a great university by coming from the City League. You don’t just have to go to a private school for that to happen.”
Buford, in fact, is an excellent student with a 3.2 cumulative grade-point average.
The senior wing recently was selected to play in the nation’s top two postseason all-star games – the 32nd annual McDonald’s All-American game, which will be held later this month in Milwaukee, and the Jordan Brand Classic, which will be held next month in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Mullens also is among the 24 players to make the McDonald’s game and is in the field of 21 for the Jordan game.
Jackson, in 1989, was the only other Toledo City League player to ever play in the McDonald’s game, which began in 1977. The Jordan game is in its seventh year.
But first and foremost Buford will try to lead Libbey to its first-ever state title in the school’s sixth appearance in the final four. He endured foul trouble and played limited minutes in the regional final with Lexington on Sunday and still managed to record 15 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in another crucial Cowboys win.
Buford has a 15-year-old sister, Simone, and a 20-year-old brother, Ryan. He said his parents and his siblings will be in the VCA stands as he attempts to lead his team into history.
“It’s just a very good time right now,” he said. “Coach Matta called and wished me luck and this is something we feel we’re ready for. It’s exciting.”