COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was the middle of a blowout game earlier this month, but the pesky Ohio State guard Aaron Craft was playing as if the very future of the game of basketball was at stake.
Every time the overmatched Northern Kentucky ball-handlers brought the ball past half court, the 21-year-old Craft stuck to them like a horse fly on flypaper. His hands stayed in their mugs, his feet kept him between them and the basket, and his head darted here and there, keeping track of the court landscape.
Late in the first half – after Craft had already notched three steals, and after Craft had contested a 3-point shot and then sprinted the other way, catching a fast-break pass then tossing in a layup – Northern Kentucky scored its first field goal in more than six minutes. An exasperated Northern Kentucky team, which had prepared for Craft’s full-throttle defense by putting two defenders on the ball-handler in practice, simply didn’t know what to do with the Buckeyes’ 6-foot-2 pest.
“He’s like having two guys on you, really,” the Northern Kentucky coach, Dave Bezold, said after his team had lost by 27 points. “He changed that game on defense. … Whoever he was guarding, we thought about sticking him on the other end of the floor, or stick him in the corner, so (Craft) couldn’t find a way to disrupt our offense too much. (But) he did.”
A look at box scores doesn’t always show how Craft can impact the outcome of a game. On this night, a few weeks before the seventh-ranked Buckeyes’ Saturday matchup against ninth-ranked Kansas, Craft’s line didn’t appear particularly dominating: 2-for-9 shooting, including 0-for-4 from beyond the arc, plus four assists. Yet he had four steals and an incalculable amount of defensive disruption.
That’s just the way basketball is played by the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year: He’s not after the SportsCenter moment, not after anything other than getting the win and doing the little things all the coaches love.
In a college game that’s increasingly dominated by one-and-dones and blue-chip offensive talent, Craft is a rare breed: A player who gets as much satisfaction from pressuring a turnover or forcing a five-second violation as from a highlight-reel play.
When you ask Craft’s coach how he can so fully disrupt another team’s plans on defense – how he was able to rank fifth in the nation last year in steals, how he changed the course of last year’s Sweet Sixteen victory over Cincinnati with six steals, one short of his career high – Thad Matta doesn’t overemphasize Craft’s lateral quickness. He doesn’t crow about Craft’s video sessions where he obsesses over his opponents’ offensive tendencies. He doesn’t mention that Craft is a pre-med student with a 3.889 grade-point average that won him an award for best GPA among players in last year’s Final Four.
Matta breaks Craft’s defensive tenacity down more simply: Craft just wants it more.
“What makes him a tremendous defender is a desire to be a great defender,” Matt said. “He wants to be a defensive stopper. He wants to be a pest to the opposing team. He wants to create chaos.”
When you look at his childhood in northwestern Ohio, it’s not particularly surprising Craft has this defensive DNA few players have. His father was a high school basketball and football coach. Every week during the football season when Craft was growing up, the bigger, older linebackers would come over for a Thursday night dinner followed by a 1 ½-hour film session. Craft and his older brother, Brandon, would tag along.
They’d tag along too at most of their dad’s practices and games, staging ultra-competitive sibling contests on the football field as their father waited for the players to come out of the locker room. Craft’s father only doubted this parenting decision once, when a 3- or 4-year-old Aaron stole his father’s keys at a basketball practice and shoved them in an electrical outlet, shocking himself and scaring the daylights out of his dad.
“His defensive mindset comes from living with a coach, and growing up with the idea that there are so many little things that need to be taken care of,” Craft’s father, John Craft, told FOXSports.com.
“He wasn’t going to go to a babysitter as long as I didn’t have to change a diaper at practice. He’s been going to two-a-days and varsity basketball practice since he was 3 or 4. When he got potty-trained, there were no more babysitters.”
Craft laughs when he talks about the rivalry with his brother, who is three years older and recently returned from an Army deployment in Afghanistan. They’d wrestle each other on the football practice field with the older players cheering on. The winner of the regular neighborhood Wiffle Ball ball games had family bragging rights for that night. Aaron would play basketball with his older brother and his friends, and even though he couldn’t measure up on offense, he could pester and frustrate and anger them on defense.
“That’s where it started,” Craft told FOXSports.com. “Any time I could talk a little bit of trash to (my older brother), it would get him frustrated, then he would get me frustrated, and it would just make me want to go out and do some more.”
“It definitely all goes back to my family, my brother and my dad,” Craft continued. “But throughout the years you learn that defense wins games, whether it’s football or basketball. Oftentimes your best defense leads to your best offense — easy buckets, easy baskets in transition, things like that. Little things like that win you basketball games. And little things win games a lot better than the highlight-reel type of plays.”
Despite Ohio State’s 9-1 start, Craft has begun his season a bit slower. Mostly, it’s his jump shot. He’s shooting just below 38 percent, well below last year’s 50 percent mark despite averaging about two more shots per game than last year. But that’s the thing about being a top-notch defender. On the offensive end, sometimes the buckets drop for you, sometimes they don’t.
But on the defensive end you can always count on hustling, high-intellect defense being there for you. Of the 86 ballgames in which Craft has played during his Ohio State career, he’s played only 10 where he hasn’t gotten at least one steal. You can always make up for a turnover at one end with a steal on the other.
All of this has got to be at the top of mind this weekend for Kansas point guard Elijah Johnson and leading scorer Ben McLemore.
“It all starts with wanting to do it and having that desire,” Craft said. “A lot of it comes down to the trust you have in the guys behind you. It would be foolish to think I’m out there by myself. I get beat. It happens. But guys are behind me, willing to pick me up as well. You can’t go at it as an individualistic thing. The more trust you have in them, the more trust you have in yourself.”
Which are words that are music to any coach’s ears.