Defense has long been Craft's specialty
Anthony Fuline is the son of a basketball coach. He's been raised in gyms, in locker rooms and on bus rides. Summer vacation comes only after summer basketball and basketball camps.
Lately, Anthony's been hearing a lot from his father about the importance of playing defense like Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft plays defense. Anthony studies Craft's stance, his footwork and his technique.
Anthony Fuline is six years old. He doesn't miss a minute of Craft's games.
Though he did foul out with 48 seconds left in last week's East regional final win over Syracuse, Craft rarely misses a minute - or even a second - for the Buckeyes, who play Kansas Saturday night in the Final Four. It was the day after that Syracuse game that Anthony Fuline's father, Mike, the head basketball coach at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, took to Twitter to share how he feels about Craft's defense.
"Dear Basketball Gods: please allow my son to defend like Aaron Craft. Even at the CYO level. Amen," Fuline tweeted.
It just so happens that Craft is the son of a basketball coach, raised in gyms and on summer camps. It shows.
Craft said he started concentrating on defense when he was young -- maybe even six -- as a necessity in one-on-one games in the Craft's Findlay, Ohio driveway against his older brother, Brandon.
"I couldn't score too much because I was a lot smaller than him, but I could frustrate him if I was playing great defense," Craft said. "That kind of is what I hung my hat on, and it carried over. It's something I enjoy doing. I take great pride in my defense."
Craft is a coach's dream, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the all-American kid who's shown in two college seasons that he's quick enough to put the clamps on just about any All-American.
"I think he's the best defender in college basketball," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
Said Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith Jr.: "I've seen Craft steal so many souls out there."
A 4.0 student who plans to one day go to medical school, Craft is an Academic All-American who dominates the Rubik's Cube like he dominates opposing point guards. His relentless effort has made the floor burn cool, and the recognition he's gained throughout this NCAA Tournament run has become a source of pride for those who have been watching Craft both just recently and also those who have followed his path from Liberty Benton High School in Findlay to college basketball's biggest stage.
"He's tough to get around, and I tried just about every move I had in three years playing against him in high school," said Defiance College (Div. III) freshman guard Mason Roth, of McComb, Ohio. "He's in your shorts. Handling the ball against him was pretty much the worst experience ever."
McComb and Liberty Benton play in the Blanchard Valley Conference, a conference made up of small high schools in Northwest Ohio. As a freshman in 2007, Craft started on a team -- as did his brother, Brandon, then a senior -- that finished as Ohio's Div. III state runner up.
"We saw on the tape the week before the game that the freshman point guard had a great understanding of the game and really disrupted opposing offenses," said Dave Wojciechowski, then the coach at Cleveland Villa-Angela St. Joseph High School and Liberty Benton's state semifinal opponent. "We had solid guards, guys older and bigger than (Craft), and we really didn't know how much trouble his quickness and defense were going to present."
Craft had 5 steals and 5 assists in that game.
"He was 5-foot-9, 15 years old, a little over 150 pounds," Wojciechowski said. "And he was a force."
Tyler Breidenbach played at Bluffton High School, about 20 miles from Findlay, and played against Craft for four years in high school.
"(As a freshman) Aaron was a very streaky shooter (but) he saw the court so well and always seemed to find an open player," Breidenbach said. "My freshman year was the closest we came to beating them, and that was before Aaron was able to score at ease."
Two years later, Breidenbach said Craft "blocked two of my 3-point attempts and (stole) what seemed to be 100 balls from the the rest of my team. We lost by 24.
"I remember my senior year telling him I wished him nothing but the best. I'm proud to have played against him. He never talked trash. If he knocked you down, he would always help you up."
Craft had a 7-steal game last year at Iowa and had 6 steals in a game at Minnesota in February. He's averaging 2.4 steals per game and has 95 for the season, a school record.
Matta said Craft "leads the film room" in number of times asking a coach to rewind the film so he can ask a question or get a second look at why an opponent was able to score. If he acts like the quarterback of the Buckeye basketball team, well, he did that, too, guiding Liberty Benton to the state title game as a junior.
"He wants every advantage he can get," Matta said. "And as a coach you know he's in there thinking."
There is one opponent Craft readily admits he struggles to keep up with, and that's Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley. Conley was Ohio State's point guard the last time the Buckeyes made the Final Four, in 2007, and returns to campus in the summer to play in open gyms and work out with the current team.
"Mike goes about 60 percent and still just demolishes our defense," Craft said.
Conley said this week he appreciates what Craft has brought to his alma mater -- and doesn't mind that Craft broke his single-season school record for steals (87).
"Just getting to know Aaron and play against him in the summer, he struck me as a leader and a competitor," Conley said. "He's such an unselfish player and reminds me of myself.
"He's a great defensive player, a better defender than I was in college. He's a big reason why (Ohio State) is still playing."