Buckeyes guards prove their value

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Jared Sullinger gets most of the attention for No. 3 Ohio State, and rightfully so. He's a legitimate candidate, if not the leading one, for player of the year honors this season.

Yet on a night when Sullinger had a good but not great game, the Buckeyes still managed to beat No. 8 Florida 81-74 at home Tuesday. That's because one of Ohio State's few questions -- its perimeter play -- showed it deserves a little more attention.

If the Gators figured to have one advantage coming into Value City Arena, it was the backcourt led by veterans Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker and talented freshman Bradley Beal. They left Columbus singing their counterparts' praises.

"Their guards are just tremendous," Boynton said of Ohio State.

For the second straight year, Florida was bedeviled by point guard Aaron Craft, a sixth man who played starter's minutes last year. Craft dissected the Gators' full-court pressure defense in Gainesville last season in just his second college game. Billy Donovan decided not to press him nearly as much this time around, but Craft found different ways to control the action.

Ask Walker. One of Florida's top scorers, the senior suffered through a 1-for-6 shooting night with Craft guarding him. Craft had three steals and seemed like he had his hands in the middle of every play, diving for loose balls and causing deflections with nonstop hustle.

"I thought clearly he dominated the game from start to finish," Donovan said. "He was the whole key, to me, in the game. More importantly, he really did it defensively. I mean, he physically beat up our guards. And I'm not saying our guards got fouled. Wholly within the context of the rules of the game, he physically manhandled our guards."

If Craft makes up for the loss of defensive stopper David Lighty from last year's top-ranked team, then William Buford picks up some of the scoring slack left by former 3-point specialist Jon Diebler. Buford has always been able to fill it up -- he has averaged double-digits since his freshman year and should finish his career as one of the top scorers in Ohio State history.

But this year he also must serve as the only senior on a team that's starting four sophomores. So it made sense that he took over the game in the second half with Sullinger on the bench with foul trouble. When Florida center Patric Young got hopelessly mismatched on the 6-foot-6 guard, Buford tripped him up with a sick crossover dribble before draining a 3-pointer for a 62-46 lead, the largest of the game.

How important is Buford? In Ohio State's Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky last season, he shot just 2-for-16 and missed a 3-pointer at the end as the Buckeyes fell 62-60. That disappointment caused him to make some changes in the summer to vary his game.

"I'm just valuing every possession more now," he said. "Trying to be more aggressive and shoot more free throws."

Buford got to the line six times Tuesday night. Ohio State coach Thad Matta talked to Buford during a couple of timeouts about avoiding rushed shots, and the senior did that in the second half.

"He's the one guy who's been through these wars numerous times," Matta said. "So we need him to do that."

Florida led most of the first half, beating Ohio State with some dribble penetration and pick-and-pops while hitting six first-half 3s. Then Craft and Buford got more aggressive with their defense, and the Buckeyes closed out on shooters like Erik Murphy, who surprised them with three 3s in the first half. The Gators looked lost for about a six-minute scoreless stretch between the first and second halves, allowing Ohio State to pull ahead for a comfortable lead it would never relinquish.

"It seemed like it was going to be a long night early on," Craft said. "But we did a good job adjusting as a team."

The slimmed-down Sullinger took only eight shots and went long stretches without getting many touches, though he did go to the free-throw line and make all eight attempts. Florida's Young played him to a virtual standstill, though, scoring 14 points to Sullinger's 16 and grabbing six more rebounds than the All-American. Yet the Gators needed a flurry of 3s late just to make the final score close.

"That says a lot about us," Buford said, "because he's the best big man in the country."

The Buckeyes' guards proved they're pretty good, too.