At first, Aaron Craft made things miserable for Shannon Scott.
By ZAC JACKSONFS Ohio
He was the Big Man on Campus at Milton High, the steady force behind three straight
Georgia state-title game appearances. The son of former NBA player Charlie Scott was a McDonald's All-American, the highest honor among today's highly touted recruits.
Shannon Scott worked hard to maximize those God-given gifts and basketball genes. But a funny thing — or not so funny to Scott — happened when he showed up at Ohio State in the fall of 2011 and started going against incumbent point guard Aaron Craft in nearly every competitive drill in practice.
He knew he wasn't in Alpharetta, Georgia, any more.
"It was definitely a different experience," Scott said. "Back in practice in high school I was usually guarded by the point guard from the JV team. That was a little easier for me."
Scott laughed. The payoff is coming now.
Those days of being pushed by Craft, who's generally regarded as college basketball's most relentless on-ball defender, continue, but Scott is handling them much better than he used to. He's handling everything better, and he's matured into a key role for an Ohio State team that enters the NCAA tournament riding an eight-game win streak.
In all eight of those games, a two-point guard lineup of Craft and Scott has forced opponents into mistakes and has helped the Buckeyes offense get better shots. Ohio State is playing both faster and smarter, and opposing guards who already had to adjust to Craft's skill set are finding that Scott can play more than a little bit, too.
"They deflate people," Ohio State forward Sam Thompson said of the Craft-Scott combo. "Our whole team sees it. The other team sees it, and it feeds our energy."
To fully appreciate the way Craft and Scott work together, you have watch them and watch the eyes of the guards they're disrupting, not peruse box scores. Scott is undoubtedly playing the best basketball of his two years at Ohio State, yet didn't score a point in the Buckeyes' last two wins at the Big Ten tournament last weekend. He did deliver a total of 7 rebounds, 8 assists and 5 steals.
He's had just four double-digit scoring games all season but, especially of late, has consistently given Ohio State quality minutes. He's made game-changing plays with steals, chase-down blocks and the ability to handle the ball confidently while still deferring to Craft in the biggest moments.
Scott is usually the first player off the Buckeyes bench but says he doesn't need to start. He likes seeing the start of the game, "getting a read on things," he said, and preparing to come in and try to force the opponent to play faster than it wants to.
"I think I have more confidence in myself, and I think my teammates trust me," Scott said. "Aaron has always helped me keep my head up, always stay positive. I go against him every day in practice, and I get in the game and I don't see many defenses play the way he does every single day."
Those early practices against Craft, Scott admits now, were a bit overwhelming.
"It was different," he said. "Humbling. Definitely humbling.
"I always knew I could do it. I had to get my mind right with it. I had to show up to play every day."
Going back to his first head-coaching job at Butler, Ohio State coach Thad Matta has had an affinity for playing multiple point guards at the same time. In guiding
Xavier to the Elite Eight back in 2004, he played Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers together — including all 40 minutes in multiple NCAA tournament games.
At least part of this Craft-Scott experiment was borne out of necessity. Ohio State hit rock bottom in a 71-49 loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17 but hasn't lost since, partly, Matta said, because the players have taken ownership and responsibility, and partly because they've found another gear.
The Buckeyes' two point guards have been much better than anyone else's one.
"I just think both Aaron and Shannon have a sense of awareness on the floor and a sense for what the other can do," Matta said. "They play very well together at both the offensive and defensive end. That's the biggest thing. They aren't getting in each other's way."
Scott's minutes over the last month have increased steadily, as have his other numbers. The Buckeyes are getting the best from him and from several other players, and they're getting easier baskets off the opportunities Craft and Scott create.
"Going small the last few weeks has been really beneficial for us," Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals said. "Thad likes playing those guards together. He likes versatility.
"The biggest thing with Shannon is how far he's come with his confidence level. He's a huge reason why we've won all these games in a row, and he's starting to see and believe that for himself. He changes the dimensions of the game at both ends with his athleticism."
Somewhere in Alpharetta, Georgia, is a former JV point guard who's better for having had to battle Scott every day in practice. As Ohio State heads to
Dayton to start its quest for back-to-back Final Fours, a player who played a bit part last year looms as a key contributor now.
'I don't know if Aaron hounding him in practice was ever deflating for Shannon, but Shannon knew it was making him better," Boals said. "Shannon has made the best of it. He's taken pride in working extra."
Said Thompson: "Aaron and Shannon are both great at creating. They're both unselfish. They get us easy points with their defense, but whenever they're on the court together our offense seems to be smooth."