March is full of unsung heroes.
In the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season-saving victory over then-No.23 Ohio State on Sunday, Kobe Bufkin’s late-game 3-point jumper etched his name into the history books as one of those heroes.
It didn’t matter that the freshman guard played just seven minutes against the Buckeyes. It didn’t matter that Bufkin has not had a huge role for the Wolverines despite being a McDonald’s All-American last year. It didn’t matter that he had connected on just three of his last 23 3-point attempts over his previous 17 games.
With Michigan clinging to a four-point lead and less than 90 seconds remaining in a game where a loss could spell certain-death for its postseason hopes, none of that mattered. As the ball came hurtling toward Bufkin’s hands, he stepped to his left, rose above two Ohio State defenders in his area and released a shot with confidence.
It flew perfectly towards the basket, striking nothing but net to extend the lead to seven and silence the hostile crowd inside Value City Arena. The seven-point lead proved to be insurmountable — and the win likely punched the Wolverines’ March Madness ticket.
At that moment, the discussion of Bufkin’s shortcomings throughout the season melted away. Instead, it was a culmination of everything Bufkin had done when his play wasn’t grabbing headlines.
“We’re at the end of the year and we’re looking for one play,” acting head coach Phil Martelli said. “This is growth. Because Kobe was involved in the game. He made a big shot, but he was involved in the game. Like he had hands on balls and even the shots that he would raise up and take, he thought they were going in. That’s what I saw.”
This wasn’t the first time Martelli sung praises of Bufkin. In Martelli’s first game filling in for Michigan coach Juwan Howard, with freshman forward Moussa Diabate and sophomore forward Terrance Williams II serving one-game suspensions, Bufkin was called upon to fill a major hole in the rotation
He played a season-high 21 minutes and his defensive activity that night was key to slowing down a red-hot Rutgers offense. He didn’t blow anyone away in the stat sheet, but he was able to hold his own on the court. His engagement and understanding of defensive assignments was leaps and bounds ahead of where he had been at the start of the year.
“(He was) focused on the things that are important here,” Martelli said after the win over the Scarlet Knights. “Like he got really angry with himself in the second half because he allowed a dribble drive. That wouldn’t have happened six weeks ago. It definitely didn’t happen three months ago. So again, it’s growth.”
That’s the word that comes up over and over when describing Bufkin: growth.
This trait comes in more ways than one. It’s displayed by going from a player who could barely crack double-digit minutes at the start of Big Ten play to someone who’s called on in the stretch run of the season.
It’s also shown by having the confidence to even attempt a 3-point shot with the season on the line, when you’re not known for being a 3-point shooter.
“It’s really interesting with Kobe, because … his jumper looks different, right?” Martell said after the Rutgers game. “His jumper looks different.”
Perhaps, Martelli was prophecizing.
Prior to Bufkin’s shot, Michigan had watched a 12-point second half lead shrink to four, with all the momentum falling in Ohio State’s favor. The Wolverines needed a bucket but their two best three point shooters — fifth-year guard Eli Brooks and freshman wing Caleb Houstan — were a combined 1-for-6 from deep. Someone else needed to step up.
A greener version of Bufkin may have shed that responsibility to a more veteran player. As Brooks drove the baseline with time winding down, Bufkin could’ve looked to make himself invisible on the play. The pressure was mounting and a missed shot could’ve had detrimental consequences But, Bufkin didn’t shy away from the moment.
He called for the ball with outstretched arms.