LOS ANGELES – Aaron Craft was joking about a tweet referencing him the other day from a former Ohio State teammate. It was a riff on the popular Chuck Norris tough-guy theme.
“I believe it said I would kick Chuck Norris’ butt,” Craft said.
“Then he would shave his head to look more like me.”
Norris will not cover Buckeyes junior guard Craft in the NCAA West regional game Thursday. Nick Johnson will, at least a majority of the time. The way Johnson has played defense the last three weeks, Craft might hope for Norris instead.
The Wildcats (27-7) excelled at the defensive end in a sweep of Belmont and Harvard in the second round of the tournament in Salt Lake City last week, limiting them to a combined 33 percent shooting from the field. Harvard made 27.6 percent in the UA’s 74-51 victory on Saturday, the lowest percentage by an opponent in the Wildcats’ 76-game NCAA tournament history.
Johnson has had a lot to do with it, and it starts with taking ownership on the defensive end.
“Definitely. Especially in the last few games, knowing these are do-or-die games,” Johnson said. “We win, we advance. We lose, we go home. You have to have a lot effort.
“I’ve really been studying my guys and what they do. This time, me and ‘Cheeks’ (Mark Lyons) will for a majority be on Craft. It’s knowing what he does, looking at film. I’ve watched Ohio State play many times on TV, so I know Aaron Craft’s game. I’ve played against him before in AAU ball. It’s just knowing what he does and working it in during the game.”
Like Larry Drew II at UCLA, point guard Craft is the Buckeyes’ leader. He starts the offense and ignites the defense, and he can score at critical times, too. His 3-pointer with five-tenths of the a second remaining gave Ohio State a 78-75 victory over Iowa State on Sunday, a few possessions after he drew a charging foul on an Iowa State player – a call officials later said should have been on Craft because his right foot was stationed in the plane of the restricted area under the basket.
“I was watching the game. I thought it was a good call at first,” Johnson said.
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Johnson has done his work with solid positioning and study. When Arizona State 3-pointer specialist Jonathan Gilling came to Tucson for the final regular season game, Johnson pressed Gilling at the line and limited him to four field goals and 1 of 3 3-pointers. Giliing is a small forward, but the positions do not seem to matter for Johnson, a 6-foot-3 sophomore.
He held Colorado off guard Spencer Dinwiddie to 4-of-12 shooting from the field in Arizona’s 79-69 victory in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament on March 14 while scoring 18 points himself, and he shut out Drew II in a 66-64 loss to UCLA the next day. Drew did not score, going 0 for 5 from the floor, and had four assists, about half his average.
Belmont’s Ian Clark had 21 points against Johnson and Arizona in the first round of the NCAA West regional, but he was not much of a factor in a game the Wildcats led by double-digits for the final 21 minutes. Harvard 3-point specialist Laurent Rivard made 1 of 6 threes against Johnson and Jordin Mayes two days later.
Johnson credits the scouting reports the UA assistants have drawn up, but others believe Johnson’s athleticism understand are the critical elements. Arizona State coach Herb Sendek called Johnson among the best defenders in the Pac-12.
“(It’s) knowing where their shooters were. They (Harvard’s Rivard and Christian Webster) made eight 3-pointers against New Mexico, and that was their Achilles’ heel. Playing hard,” Johnson said.
Teammates see the commitment.
“He’s handled a lot of players this season,” freshman forward Grant Jerrett said. “It’s nice to see how well he does with the challenge he gets. He’s playing against guys who possibly go into the league (NBA), and he’s really done a good job on them. I feel when he does do that, it benefits him, not just on defense but on offense as well.”
“He’s more motivated,” said senior leader Solomon Hill, who said he has seen Johnson learn to separate offense from defense.
“When you have a guy missing shots and he’s hit a slump, that can get to a young guy. It is hard for him to just put it behind him. But I think is play as of recent has really set him up to have a good tournament. That’s his mentality now. He is able to bounce back faster. His ability to bounce back so fast, it really show maturity in his game.
“I think if he understands next year he has to forget the last play and move on, because his team is going to need him, and we need him now more than ever.”