January 28, 2011

Craft helps Matta catch up at PG

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Given freshman point guard Aaron Craft's immense success in his first season with Ohio State, the comparisons to former Buckeye Mike Conley Jr. are inevitable.

It makes sense on the surface. Both came in with high-profile classes under the radar before turning out to be one of the most integral pieces to an Ohio State team fueled for a run to the Final Four.

But Purdue head coach Matt Painter found Craft's biggest contributions to this year's Ohio State team came in a different way. Sure, Craft scored 11 points in Ohio State's 23-point victory over the No. 12 Boilermakers Tuesday night, but Painter found he was best fit as the Buckeyes' top defender.

Craft, known as a high basketball IQ guy that facilitates the offense, got perhaps the biggest compliment from Painter after the No. 1 Buckeyes dispatched his team when being compared to former Boilermaker Chris Kramer.

"I love Aaron Craft. He's tough and I talked to our guys and explained to them how he can move laterally and how he's like Chris Kramer defensively," Painter said. "(He's) better offensively, but he's similar to him in terms of moving his feet and his toughness."

Not a bad compliment considering Kramer was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year in both 2008 and 2010. For Ohio State head coach Thad Matta, it can't be bad to hear a compliment of that magnitude at a position where there was some admitted reservations before the season.

But those reservations could be in large part thanks to Conley, who had such a strong showing in his freshman season - particularly in Ohio State's run to the title game in 2007 - that he eventually ended up the No. 4 pick in the NBA Draft. That departure, when zoned in closely on the recruiting blueprints, was unexpected.

Having left early, Matta had to improvise at the point guard position, dating back to last season when fully turning to Evan Turner to take over that role.

But Turner admittedly wasn't a pure point guard. Sure, Turner had perhaps the most electrifying season of any player in Matta's 7-year tenure at Ohio State last year before being named the National Player of the Year, but he changed the dynamics of the team.

Turner was Ohio State's first scoring option. Though he was one of the conference's best rebounders, too, Turner was the guy the Buckeyes turned to when they needed a bucket the most.

"Evan was a guy who was going for his, and rightfully so," Painter said. "He was breaking people down, but I think they have a great mix of guys (this year)."

Craft's role is different, but could be just as important.

Having drawn such great compliments with his defensive ability, Craft has also shown the ability to break the press as a freshman, find open guys, anticipate where open looks will come from, and even score in a myriad of different ways.

Statistically Craft looks to have developed better than Matta could have ever imagined he would as a freshman. Craft is sporting better than a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ration - the most important statistic for a pure point guard - he is shooting nearly 47 percent, and he ranks No. 3 in the conference in assists per game (5).

"I think it all started in the summer," Craft said. "Just coming in, trying to work hard and do what I was told to do. That's what it boiled down to. I didn't have to say much. I just sat back and listened."

The Buckeyes not sit 21-0 and hold the top spot in both polls, and three of its most key players are in their first years at Ohio State.

But at point guard, Painter said Matta has found a solution to his problem.

"I think he finally got caught up to Mike Conley leaving," Painter said. "He has that now in Aaron Craft."

Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at Ari@BuckeyeGrove.com.


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