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March 30, 2012

Craft shines most in pressure situations

Follow Noon | Rowland | Givler | Birmingham

NEW ORLEANS - Before Aaron Craft took the NCAA tournament by storm the most national news he generated came when Cosmopolitan magazine named him the "Hottest Guy" of March Madness. Now Craft is drawing headlines nationwide due to his superior defense.

High regard has come from every corner of the globe and some of the top coaches in the game. After victories this season over Florida, Duke, and Michigan State, Billy Donovan, Mike Krzyzewski, and Tom Izzo each praised the Findlay native for his defensive presence and basketball IQ.

"He is as good as any guard there is out there," Donovan said after Ohio State beat Florida 81-74 in November. "I have a lot of respect and admiration for him. He is a tough, hard-nosed kid that probably does not get the proper respect he deserves."

That is quickly changing.

In the Buckeyes' Sweet 16 win over Cincinnati, Craft was a whirling dervish of energy, weaving in and out of the passing lanes and setting a school NCAA tournament record with six steals. He already owns the single-season record at Ohio State, and is on his way to shattering the career mark for steals. Needless to say, Craft generates more frustration than any player in the country.

"He's the best defender in college basketball. There's nobody better than him," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said emphatically about the Big Ten's defensive player of the year who doubles as his starting point guard.

It's a far cry from Craft's high school days at Liberty-Benton. That's not to say he wasn't a great defender, he was, but Craft was also an elite scorer. As a senior, he averaged 26 points, seven assists, and eight rebounds per game. All that went out the window when he joined the Buckeyes. Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, and William Buford fill the basket with regularity, rendering Craft's services unavailable.

Craft is averaging nine points per game and has shown a propensity to find the hoop and finish at the rim when called upon. In the third-round game against Gonzaga, Craft was the catalyst in a seven-point comeback win, finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals. Most of that production came with Sullinger relegated to the bench with foul trouble.

"It's something you have to get adjusted to," Craft said of the change from high school to college. "I understand that my role might not be scoring. But there are so many other ways I can impact the basketball game to help the team be successful. You just have to find that and trust the coaches when they tell you what you should do. It can be tough at times, but winning and having fun with your teammates overrides being upset that you're not scoring or doing what you did in high school."

From all accounts, Craft has outworked and outsmarted everyone in practice since the moment he stepped foot in the locker room as a scrawny freshman. That also applies to the classroom, where Craft carries a 3.89 GPA as a pre-med major.

In February, he was named a first team academic All-American, becoming the first Ohio State player to earn the honor in 44 years.

His smarts and take-charge attitude were groomed on the gridiron. Craft was the Division V offensive player of the year in 2009, serving as the starting quarterback for a Liberty-Benton squad that finished as state runners-up. He doubled as the free safety, another position of leadership.

It was only natural that Craft would develop into the heart and soul of the Buckeyes.

"From the standpoint of what makes a great defender, intelligence and desire, he has both of those and some God-given abilities," Matta said. "He takes great pride in what he's doing every single possession. That's why I've said all year he's the best defender in college basketball."

Sullinger and Toledo native William Buford said Craft can take it a little too far, though.

"He's a know-it-all," Sullinger said chuckling, as Craft just shook his head grinning. "Aaron thinks he knows everything and he's always correcting our English and grammar."

Craft's toughness and on-court instincts were honed at a young age on the cement courts of Findlay, when he was forced to play pickup games against his older brother, Brandon, and his friends. Because Craft was so much shorter than the competition, he knew offense wasn't an option, so he turned his attention to the other end of the court.

"I wasn't the best offensively, but I could frustrate him on defense if I played hard," Craft said. "That's where it started. I've always had great players around me, too, so the scoring aspect hasn't necessarily been my role. So defense is where I've been able to make an impact.

"It's something I enjoy doing. I take great pride in defense and I trust these guys to be behind me regardless of who I'm guarding."

It doesn't hurt when you go head-to-head against former college All-Americans and a current NBA star point guard in Scoonie Penn and Mike Conley every summer.

"I take it as a great opportunity to find a way to get better," Craft said about the summer pickup games. "If I can keep one of those guys in front of me for an extended period of time, I feel pretty good about myself."

As it turns out, defense runs in the Craft family, though on opposite ends of the spectrum. On the day the Buckeyes' clinched a berth in the Final Four, Brandon Craft was deployed for the second time as an Army infantryman a world away in Afghanistan. Winning a national championship remains the goal for Craft, but his connection to a raging war heightens his sense of perspective.

"We fight for a basketball game, but he's fighting for something bigger than all of us," Craft said. "It has become a little more real and a little more eye-opening every day since he enlisted."

This story originally appeared in the March 30 edition of The Toledo Blade.

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