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Mike Lopresti | | December 6, 2013

Making the grade by working hard

Ohio State Aaron Craft

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The game against Maryland was over -- another Ohio State defensive tour de force -- and Aaron Craft had places to go and books to study.

A micro economics final awaited at 8 o’clock the next morning, and an organic chemistry exam the day after. “The big one,” he called the latter, with the same gravity he would mention a game at Michigan State. Finals are serious business for a guy with a grade-point average (3.92) that looks like an American League starting pitcher’s earned run average.

But first, perhaps he could give us a word or two about how the 7-0 Buckeyes are doing what they’re doing. Especially him.  In a season where the tighter calls against hand contact are supposed to make aggressive defense as endangered as the phone booth, Ohio State keeps putting teams in irons. Craft is the ringleader -- noted thief, pest, winner. He’s a migraine headache for the opposing shooters that never goes away.

It still goes back to positioning off the ball, positioning on the ball, not being lazy, not relaxing off the ball.
-- Thad Matta

Or as Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said after the Buckeye senior had mucked up the Terrapins with his five steals and other mischief, “I think Aaron Craft is at another level.”

New rules? What new rules? You mean, you can still play defense in the year of the whistle? You can bother an offense without forearm shivers that would make Urban Meyer proud?

“Absolutely,” Craft said. “That’s how it should be played. I’ve been told ever since I was young that you get steals with your feet anyway. It’s possible. I think as a team we’re showing it.”

Ohio State is allowing 54 points a game and 35.9 percent shooting -- and doing that handcuffing while committing only 16 fouls a game.

And here’s a stat line you don’t see every day: The Buckeyes have 51 steals for the season, while their opponents have only 50 assists. “Astronomical numbers,’’ said head coach Thad Matta, who hadn’t even realized them.

What he does realize is what Ohio State has in Craft.

“I was never worried about him when all this came out. He plays defense with his feet, and he can analyze better than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Matt said.

So Craft has been up to his old ways. The Maryland game was 20 seconds old when he took his first charge. In the first 24 minutes, he had as many field goals as the tuba player in the pep band, but when he went to the floor for a steal with four seconds left in the first half and somehow managed to shovel the ball out to set up a Sam Thompson dunk, the lead was 43-26 and the game pretty much settled. The Terrapins have been Crafted.

“Maybe it’s them,” Turgeon said of the Buckeyes after his team struggled so in a 76-60 loss. “Maybe they’re just that good.”

So really, how different is the life of a defensive ace?

I’ve tried to do the best job I can guarding with my feet ever since I’ve been here, so I try not to use my hands.
-- Aaron Craft

“I haven’t noticed it a ton,” Craft said. “Early on I thought about it a little too much and that affected me a little bit. As the year’s gone by, it’s just play your game. Some refs are calling it really tight, some aren’t still, so you have to get a read of that early.”

Besides that, he has a point to prove. Something about how defense never goes out of style, no matter what’s being called.

“I’ve been looking forward to it. Ever since the rules came out, the first question to me has been how are things going to change?” Craft said. “I just try to keep as quiet as possible and let the game speak for itself.

“I’ve tried to do the best job I can guarding with my feet ever since I’ve been here, so I try not to use my hands. Apparently, everyone else thinks I’ve been using my hands and fouling for three years. It’s been a great challenge, not only for myself but our team.”

Referees worked the Buckeyes’ first scrimmage and the air was full of whistles. “That kind of rocked our world,” Craft said. “The next few practices after that, we really emphasized being in the right position, because if you’re out of position, that’s when you have to use your hands and you’re fouling guys. We needed to trust one another.”

He’d get a high-five from his coach for that comment. To Thad Matta, calls come and go, but defense is always defense.

“It still goes back to positioning off the ball, positioning on the ball, not being lazy, not relaxing off the ball,” he said. “Those are things that for 10 years at Ohio State we’ve talked about.

“It’s something that’s important to us. We probably work 75 percent of the practice on defense. You’ve got guys that take pride in it.”

Including a 6-foot-2 guard out to prove that you can still make the grade in defense if you work hard enough.

Just like organic chemistry.

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