Here is a story from the Mansfield News Journal, our Gannett partner, about Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, who hit the game-winning shot Sunday against Iowa State and will be tasked with slowing down Arizona point guard Mark Lyons on Thursday. Check out more about the Buckeyes at the News Journal’s Ohio State page.
By Rob McCurdy
COLUMBUS — When Thad Matta was on the summer AAU circuit, he saw something in the rosy cheeked kid playing alongside blue-chippers like Jared Sullinger and Adreian Payne.
“He always had the best guy on the other team and his team always won,” the Ohio State coach said earlier this season when asked about his point guard Aaron Craft. “Seeing that in him is invaluable to us, and it’s just kind of in his DNA and his makeup.”
If there’s a gene for defensive prowess, Craft has it. He certainly has the genetic tools for great defense.
“He’s stronger than he looks. He has tremendous lateral quickness, and he’s got a high intellect in terms of he studies scouting and knows tendencies of who he’s guarding — that sort of thing,” Matta said.
But defense is as much about desire and effort as it is measurables and smarts.
“He wants to be a defensive stopper,” Matta continued. “He wants to be a pest to the opposing team. He wants to create chaos.”
Because of his tenacity, Craft is considered a villain on the road. Student sections ride him with chants and signs, and Grantland.com recently put him in its bracket for the most hated college basketball player over the last 30 years.
“That is the ultimate compliment,” Matta said. “If you knew him as a person, he’s the greatest kid I ever coached.”
Opposing coaches have a love-hate affinity for the 6-foot-2 junior from Findlay. They admire his toughness and his attention to defense, but they loathe what it does to their teams.
“You can’t simulate the defensive pressure of Craft in practice. He is like having two guys on you,” Northern Kentucky coach Dave Bezold said after a 70-43 loss in Columbus. “He changed the game in the second half to disrupt our offense. We wanted to send whoever he was guarding to the other end of the floor, so he couldn’t get near the ball and disrupt our offense.”
Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, the former head coach at Gonzaga and Minnesota, called him as good an on-ball defender as anyone in the country after watching Craft manhandle Mike Caffey into a 1-for-11 night from the field with four turnovers earlier this year. And Caffey ended up averaging 12 points a game for the 49ers.
Albany, who made the NCAA Tournament this year, was the season-opening opponent for the Buckeyes. After the 82-60 loss, Albany coach Will Brown predicted a long NBA career for Craft. “He keeps getting better every year. We already knew he was the best defensive guard in the country,” he said.
Like Matta, Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey knew Craft well before he played a minute of college basketball from following him in the AAU tournaments around the country.
“He is a tiger on the ball,” Kelsey said. “I’ve never seen as relentless of an on-ball defender as Aaron Craft. He sets the tone for their defense. I showed clips to our guys of him guarding the ball and it was like a piranha smelling blood. It’s unbelievable.
“When he does that it gives them incredible courage defensively. There was a loose ball in front of our bench where he puts his teeth on the ball. I tell our guys all the time, we don’t call loose balls 50-50 balls. We call them Winthrop balls. When that ball is loose, it’s an Aaron Craft ball because I’ve never seen anybody dive on the floor as fast as that cat.”
Defense trumps offense
Craft is one of the few players who can affect the game so much on defense that shooting 43 percent from the floor or less than 30 percent from the 3-point arc — while not ideal — isn’t devastating to the bottom line of the Buckeyes.
Purdue brothers Terone and Ronnie Johnson shot a combined 13-of-36 with five turnovers in a 74-64 OSU win. Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke was 4-of-13 from the field with four turnovers when Ohio State upset Michigan 56-53 in Columbus. Michigan State guard Keith Appling played well in their win in East Lansing, but in the other two matchups, he was 7-of-23 shooting with four turnovers, both OSU wins. Indiana freshman Yogi Ferrell was 3-for-10 at home when the Buckeyes upset them in the last week of the regular season.
The one thing all these bad nights had in common: Craft was their chief ballhawk.
“I just try to go out and play my game and play with a feel that has gotten me to this point,” Craft said earlier this season. “I find when I think and try to worry about too many things, I usually play my worst. If I see something that I can take advantage of, I’m going to do so. Whether I’m scoring or not, that shouldn’t have an effect on the rest of it.”
When his point guard was in the depths of a shooting slump in December, Matta never wavered in his support for Craft.
“I’ve got no problems with Aaron,” he said at the time. “I don’t know as a coach if you ever have a more secure feeling knowing he’s out there. Yeah, I want him to score and he wants to score more and our team will probably need him to score more, but that’s going to come back for him. There’s no doubt in my mind. He’ll get that going.”
The trust paid off. Craft is averaging 10 points and two steals to go with 4.6 assists per game. He scored better when the season got serious and the opponents better, upping his average in Big Ten play.
Craft was so important to the Buckeyes’ championship last week in Chicago for the Big Ten Tournament, he was named the most outstanding player, mainly for hamstringing Nebraska guard Ray Gallegos into a 2-for-12 night, forcing Appling to take 17 shots (and make just six) for MSU and keeping Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson and Ben Brust in check.
Ohio State’s go-to player Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten scoring champion, sees the value in Craft.
“He’s the leader out there. He gives his all,” Thomas said of the point guard’s willingness to give up his body to make a play and his always-ready, no-nonsense demeanor. “It’s great for a player like me to look at him and say that’s the MVP right there. He does it all, and I give him much respect for that.”
When the Big Ten coaches went for the ultra-versatile and uber-athletic Victor Oladipo as the conference’s defensive player of the year, Craft took the high road about being dethroned.
“Victor did a great job of coming out and having a great year,” Craft said. “I don’t think it’s a knock on me. It is a testament to what he was able to do.”
Craft can’t defend four positions like the 6-5 Oladipo, and he doesn’t provide highlight reel plays around the rim like the Indiana Hoosier. In fact, a lot of what last year’s conference defender of the year does can’t be quantified beyond already becoming Ohio State’s all-time leader in steals in less than three seasons.
Matta said Oladipo is an outstanding defensive player, but that his guy is in a different stratosphere.
“This basketball team wouldn’t be anywhere where it is without the impact he makes on the defensive end,” Matta said. “Aaron doesn’t fly through the air and pin shots off the glass. He takes them from guys’ hands when he’s on the floor. How many 5-second counts has Aaron Craft gotten this year by himself man-on-man with 80 feet to get away from him? And they can’t get away from him.”
He cuts off half the floor. He forces teams to start their offense further out than they want. He directs ballhandlers into help. He slides side-to-side to keep the ball in front of him. He studies scouting reports to the point he knows where his opponent wants to go before the opposing guard knows it. He’s rarely out of position when it comes to taking a charge or providing help to a beaten teammate. He’s quick in the passing lanes and causes havoc to big guys who dare to put the ball of the floor in the paint. He forces turnovers and hurries shots.
And little to none of it appears on a stat sheet. He has to be seen to be believed and watched to be appreciated.
“Aaron Craft should be the national defender of the year. I don’t care about the Big Ten,” Matta said. “Maybe I’m biased, but I know you have to game plan for him. As an opposing team, you have to be aware of where he is when you’re running your offense.”
Matta saw it in him all those summers ago and valued it.
“I have such an affection for that kid,” the coach said. “I’ve been in this league for nine years and I’ve never seen a guy make an impact on a basketball game like he does at the defensive end.
“Victor Oladipo is off the charts, but I just think Aaron is the best.”
It has to be in his DNA.