College Basketball Nation: Aaron Craft

3-point shot: Major replacements

May, 16, 2014
May 16

In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on how three key players from the 2013-14 season -- Aaron Craft, Shabazz Napier and Aaron Gordon -- believe they'll be replaced.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Beneath the pile of humanity, under the sea of astonished smiles and celebratory hugs, somewhere flat on his back was Vee Sanford, victim of the scrum and hero of the game.

It is March, and this is what March is: a 15-man pileup in the middle of a court, and a kid at the bottom who left a more certain postseason future at one school on the promise of a coach at another; who started 31 games as a junior and then nodded and said nothing when pushed to the bench as a senior.

[+] EnlargeVee Sanford
Elsa/Getty ImagesDayton's Vee Sanford scored 10 points, including the game winner, in the Flyers' upset of Ohio State.
And this is also March -- a good hour later, interviews done, locker room closed, teammates in their warm-up gear heading to the bus, and Aaron Craft still in his uniform, socks off, tape still wrapped around his ankles, walking into the hallway to hug his former teammate Jordan Sibert, who now plays for the team that just ended his college career.

Thousands of words have been penned about the ecstasy and agony of this tournament, and thousands more will be written. March is the surest thing in sports, a guaranteed thrill-making, gut-wrenching run to a title.

This one, though, might have outdone itself, delivering a well-played and emotionally frayed game from the opening tip.

No. 11 seed Dayton won 60-59 against No. 6 seed Ohio State, with Sanford scoring the game winner on a drive down the right side of the lane and only after Craft's barreling layup rolled around the rim and off as the buzzer sounded.

"It's March," Dayton's Devin Oliver said. "It's just crazy."

The narrative in lots of places will be about the little brother Flyers taking it to their shadow-making Buckeyes big brothers. But in the end this game is always about much smaller pictures than the big ones.

It's about the players.

For four years, Craft has been the personification of what people want this college game to be about (excluding, that is, the folks who find fault with a no-curse, no-drink, straight-A, heart-on-his-sleeve basketball player).

Nearly impeccable in every other part of his life, Craft certainly hasn't been without flaw on the basketball court, and this game was hardly a maestro effort. He had five turnovers and only four assists, an upside-down box score for him.

And when the game was on the line, the ball was where it belonged -- in his hands.

With 15.5 seconds left, Craft drove left and somehow managed to scoop in an up-and-under layup with his left hand to put the Buckeyes up one, 59-58.

Twelve seconds later, the ball was in his hands again. Barreling down the court, he bull-rushed his way through two defenders, tossing up a decent Hail Mary of a layup that twisted around the rim before dropping off.

"I just tried to get up the floor as quickly as possible," Craft said. "There's only four seconds left. That's kind of how our season has gone. I thought I got it up there high enough and I obviously didn't, so ..."

No, this time Craft was outdone by someone who lacks his fame but really isn't so different.

Sanford, someone Oliver described as a "go-about-your-business kind of guy," started his career at Georgetown but decided to transfer when he was unable to squeeze in much playing time.

He took a chance on Dayton and coach Archie Miller, leaving the Hoyas' pedigree for a new coach trying to build his brand.

"I just trusted Coach Miller's plan," Sanford said.

[+] EnlargeDayton Celebration
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsNo. 11 seed Dayton will now play No. 3 seed Syracuse on Saturday.
But then Miller's plan changed. Sanford started every game for the Flyers last season, averaging 12.3 points per game. But, with a host of freshmen coming in, Miller thought Sanford would be of more help coming off the bench.

The two discussed the idea at the beginning of the season.

"He never said a word about it," Miller said. "Never complained once. Still hasn't. For him to have that chance, it's poetic justice. So much of what we do and have been able to do as a team this year is because of him and his presence. For him to have that shot, a shot that's going to be played over and over again, it's perfect."

Three players on the Dayton team average more points than Sanford -- Sibert, Dyshawn Pierre and Oliver -- but when Miller signaled a timeout to set up the game winner, he put the ball in Sanford's hands.

No one was surprised.

"He's our best downhill option," Oliver said. "As soon as he got that first step, I knew he'd make a play at the rim."

Miller told Sanford to go right, which wasn't exactly a surprise, either. Craft, defending on the play, suspected as much.

Still, Sanford was able to get that first step and blow by, of all people, Craft.

"It's amazing the way that, you know, defense has kind of been my thing and how it's going to end with a kid getting the game winner on me," Craft said.

The winning shot was a floater kissed off the glass, a shot Sanford said he perfected as a fourth-grader back when his father added it to his repertoire because his boy was always so much smaller than everyone else.

As these things go, Sanford described it over and over after the game, as wave upon wave of reporters found him in the hallway outside the locker room.

With little emotion and not a trace of arrogance, he explained it again and again, until finally everyone had had their fill and Sanford walked off.

His teammates had all but cleared out of the locker room by then.

He was the last to leave.

Just like Craft.

The same and yet so different, as March tends to be.
INDIANAPOLIS – The guys in suits on the bench, the coaches who are in charge of telling Caris LeVert what he’s supposed to do, were practically making a windstorm on the sidelines they were waving their arms so hard, cajoling Levert to go back on defense.

LeVert ignored them.

He won’t be running gassers for his insubordination.

He might, in fact, get the game ball.

LeVert’s act of defiance, opting to go up and get an offensive rebound instead of sprinting back on defense, allowed Michigan to preserve a 72-69 victory over Ohio State and send the Wolverines to the Big Ten tournament final.

“This one time he gets the pass,” head coach John Beilein said. “He took a chance, but that’s what players do. That’s why he’s had the successful year he’s had, because he knows when to take a risk and be a player.”

[+] EnlargeCaris LeVert, Shannon Scott
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesCaris LeVert scored 17 points and had eight rebounds, including a huge one that preserved Michigan's Big Ten tournament victory over Ohio State.
That it was LeVert getting the rebound – not to mention scoring 17 points –- made it all a little sweeter for Michigan and a whole lot more sour for Ohio State.

These two schools, you may have heard, don’t like each other much. And LeVert is a Columbus kid; he played on a state championship team at Pickerington Central High School.

And never got so much as a phone call from the Buckeyes.

That would sting a little bit no matter where LeVert attended school right about now. He’s arguably one of the biggest surprises/breakout stars of this season. He averages 13.4 points, which might qualify him for criminally overlooked status.

That he went to Michigan and is playing so well is pouring a shaker of Morton’s on the gaping wound.

Don’t think LeVert doesn't know it, either.

“It means a lot to me,” LeVert said. “To play like this on a big stage like the Big Ten tournament and to do it against Ohio State.”

Yes, you could call that a dagger shot.

Of course, the Wolverines shot a lot of daggers at the Buckeyes in the semifinal – 12 3-pointers, in particular – but Ohio State kept taking the body blows. The Buckeyes trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half, got down again in the second and kept coming back.

If there is a silver lining in a loss – and finding one in a loss to Michigan isn't easy – the Buckeyes ought to leave here feeling better about themselves and their offense. They rallied from down 18 to beat Nebraska and matched Michigan almost bucket for bucket.

Even with LeVert’s big rebound, Ohio State had a chance to tie it at the buzzer.

But Aaron Craft, who idled on the bench for much of the second half with four fouls, fumbled the ball away as he tried to go up for the shot.

Guess who was there when Craft went up?

Yep, Caris LeVert.

It was that kind of revenge-exacting day for the kid.

“I think he just lost the ball, actually,” LeVert said. “I don’t think I got a hand on it. He just lost the ball and time ran out.”

In Thad Matta's defense, LeVert wasn't exactly boxing up recruiting mail from across the country. Ohio offered him a scholarship following his junior year, and because nobody else seemed terribly interested, he took it. Then Ohio coach John Groce left for Illinois and LeVert decided to re-evaluate things.

By then, he’d done a little more. The state title came in his senior year, as did a bunch of honors, and still not a single jingle from Ohio State.

So when Michigan offered, he jumped.

“I really don’t know why I wasn't recruited more,” he said. “Maybe I was a little undersized.”

After LeVert’s first college season, it didn't seem like anyone missed much. He averaged just 2.3 points per game.

But this season, when the Wolverines went searching for offense, there came LeVert.

He’s second to Nik Stauskas in scoring on the team and a big answer to the riddle of Michigan’s surprising success this season. The Wolverines lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke after last year’s run to the NCAA championship game and then lost Mitch McGary early in the season to a back injury.

That’s three starters, which usually wouldn't spell good things for a young team. Yet here are the Wolverines, 25-7, regular-season Big Ten champs and now gunning for the tournament title.

Beilein talked after the game about his players' genuine affection for one another and how that’s allowed Michigan to stick together despite the curveballs.

“They have each other’s backs,” he said. “They trust each other.”

And he trusts them.

Trusts them so much, in fact, that he doesn't even mind a little insubordination.

Especially when it works.

Michigan will be just fine, thanks

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12

The Michigan Wolverines spent their January being more or less unstoppable. From Dec. 21 on, including two nonconference wins against Stanford and Holy Cross and the first eight games of its Big Ten schedule, Michigan went 10-0 in high style. Nik Stauskas emerged as a dual-threat scorer and made a ridiculous percentage of his shots; the Wolverines’ offense pummeled all comers into submission. When they beat Michigan State on the road, and Stauskas waved a kiss to the Izzone on his way out the door, the message was clear: Mitch McGary or no, the Big Ten title chase was headquartered in Ann Arbor.

Then, on Feb. 2, Indiana did something no team since Duke had managed to do: It stopped Stauskas. And it beat Michigan, which had last lost to then-No. 1 Arizona.

On Saturday, when Iowa stomped a lifeless, disengaged version of the Wolverines in Iowa City -- the final score was 86-67, and even that might have been deceptively close -- the warning sirens went full blast. All of a sudden, Michigan looked beatable, vulnerable, even -- gasp -- on the verge of collapse.

After Tuesday night, it’s time to make another grand pronouncement about the Wolverines. Are you ready? Here it goes.

Never mind.

Michigan’s 70-60 win at Ohio State on Tuesday night should, at least for the moment, quell any doubts about whether the Wolverines have the fortitude to hold on to the Big Ten pole position they share with Michigan State. The Wolverines’ first win at OSU in the Thad Matta era was a genuinely impressive victory -- a blend of great offensive execution and good-enough defense on the road against a team seemingly designed to prevent exactly that.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Walton
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesFreshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. gutted out 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in Michigan's victory over Ohio State on Tuesday.
When Indiana beat Michigan, it did so by hassling Stauskas with the smaller, quicker Yogi Ferrell. On Saturday, Iowa followed Tom Crean’s counterintuitive lead. It appeared the Big Ten hive had figured out a way to stop one of the most potent offensive players in the country, and now Michigan would have to go on the road to face to an Ohio State group with not one but two of the nation’s best perimeter defenders, Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott.

What ensued was a classic John Beilein chess match abound with beautiful offensive wrinkles. The Wolverines worked Stauskas off screen after screen, changing directions and using OSU’s aggressiveness against it. Stauskas finished with 15 points on nine shots, and there were a handful of possessions that should be immediately become mandatory inclusions in coaching seminars.

But Michigan’s performance was much more than Stauskas. That might have been the most encouraging thing about it: Derrick Walton Jr. didn’t shoot well, but he still scored 13 points and added 10 rebounds and six assists. Zak Irvin made two key 3-pointers off the bench. The Wolverines’ big men, Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, combined to go 7-of-9 from the field for 14 points and 12 rebounds. Beilein’s team was just judicious enough offensively -- it made 8 of its 17 3s -- to tough out a road victory in which it shot just 41.5 percent overall.

Ohio State’s poor shooting helped, of course. The Buckeyes made just 3-of-20 from 3, and that was the biggest difference in the game. But Michigan also rebounded 42.4 percent of its own misses and 75.8 percent of OSU’s. The Wolverines’ ability to find and can open looks from the outside stemmed both from Beilein’s clever push-pull sets and from post-offensive rebound scrambles. Michigan scored 1.20 points per possession against a good defensive team as a result.

In the process, they avoided falling back to the middle of the Big Ten pack. That’s a tough place to be, a place where Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State are scrapping like crazy to stay within striking distance of the title chase -- a place where a .500 record in a deep and difficult conference is a legitimate concern. Instead, Michigan is out to 10-2. On the next two Sundays, it hosts both Wisconsin and Michigan State. Those games aren’t easy wins no matter where they take place, but they effectively end the Wolverines’ top-half responsibilities -- and might just end the Big Ten race once and for all.

Of course there are no guarantees. But the Wolverines’ ability to win on the road in a variety of ways remains very much intact. Saturday’s disaster against Iowa looks more like an outlier than a sign of things to come. Never mind all that. Michigan should be just fine.

Does the Big Ten owe Tom Crean lunch?

On Saturday afternoon, during Iowa’s ruthless home rout of Michigan, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich hit on a key insight.

Convention would dictate that a coach should check Michigan guard Nik Stauskas with as tall a wingman as he had available -- the better to challenge Stauskas, who spent all of January destroying Big Ten defenses, on the perimeter. But Dakich noted that when Indiana played (and beat) Michigan, Crean used a much shorter player -- 5-foot-11 point guard Yogi Ferrell -- on the Wolverines’ star. Crean didn’t make this decision out of necessity: 6-foot-7 Indiana wing Troy Williams might be the Hoosiers’ best all-around defender, and he would have been convention’s perfect candidate. But Ferrell’s quickness, his ability to stay inside Stauskas’ comfort zone, made him a constant nuisance. Stauskas, who had averaged a scorching 131.0 offensive rating since Dec. 21, who blew kisses to the Breslin Center, who was unstoppable ... finished with six points on 1-of-4 shooting. It was his worst game of the season.

[+] EnlargeNik Stauskas
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesPutting smaller, quicker guards on Nik Stauskas has neutralized Michigan's star guard the past three games.
Did Crean crack the code? Michigan’s two games since are suggestive. Stauskas finished with nine points against Nebraska Wednesday; he didn’t attempt a two-point field goal, but then again he didn’t have to. (Michigan won 79-50 in 63 possessions.) Iowa coach Fran McCaffery followed Crean’s lead on Saturday, though, using 6-foot-1 guard Mike Gesell as opposed to Roy Devyn Marble, the obvious size-for-size matchup. It worked: Stauskas used just 11 of Michigan’s 64 possessions and finished 3-of-6 from the field with four turnovers. Among the Wolverines’ many problems Saturday was a star scorer suddenly detached from the offense going on around him.

Say what you want about the frustrating, stop-start 2013-14 Indiana Hoosiers, but it would appear their coach did the rest of the Big Ten a solid.

Of course, Stauskas was probably due for a natural regression at some point. He was never going to sustain 45 percent shooting from 3 and 60 percent from 2. Maybe that regression came along on its own, and teamed up with Crean’s unconventional strategy. Maybe? It’s hard to tease exactly all of this out.

But there is clearly something to the idea of chasing Stauskas around the court with a small, quick, aggressive man-to-man defender. He is more likely to turn the ball over. He is less likely to get to the rim. He may see 3s more easily, but when he was tearing opposing defenses apart in January, any of them would have begged to turn Stauskas back into the semi-manageable spot-up shooter they had to worry about a year ago. Better that than unstoppable all-court destruction, you know? Better him be uncomfortable. Better to take away something.

Ohio State, for all of its issues -- and it another of those inconsistent Big Ten teams with massive, glaring flaws -- does one thing extremely well: perimeter defense. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are excellent perimeter defenders, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson aren’t far behind. As a group, the Buckeyes force Big Ten opponents into turnovers on nearly 21 percent of their possessions. OSU opponents also shoot the worst percentage in the league (28.6) from 3, and that’s when they even get a shot off, which isn’t often (just 30.6 percent of shots against the Buckeyes are 3s, second fewest in the Big Ten). The Buckeyes’ offense is occasionally a train wreck; it’s usually pretty tough to watch. But Ohio State's defense is still a nightmare for opposing guards.

If you’re Stauskas, there is no worse way to break out of a three-game mini-slump than having Craft and Scott chase you around the perimeter. Whether the league’s coaches have figured out an antidote is almost beside the point. Ohio State had one ready all along.

Shots not falling for Ohio State

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17

MINNEAPOLIS -- After No. 11 Ohio State lost 63-53 to an unranked Minnesota team on the road and suffered its first three-game losing streak since 2009, Thad Matta did what all confused men do.

He stroked his chin.

He shook his head.

He rubbed his temples.

He drifted.

He paused mid-sentence.

"It just … I don’t know," he told reporters Thursday night.

Ohio State’s offense has challenges, challenges that have even perplexed a seasoned coach such as Matta. Those challenges arose the day Deshaun Thomas turned pro.

Thomas was a polarizing figure throughout his collegiate career. Even when the San Antonio Spurs drafted him last summer in the second round, there were still questions about the tweener’s ability to compete at the next level.

He faced the same scrutiny as the No. 2 scorer in the Big Ten last season (19.7 PPG) behind Wooden Award winner Trey Burke. Thomas could be sporadic and frustrating, and his defensive inconsistency drew criticism during his tenure in Columbus, Ohio.

[+] EnlargeMatta
AP Photo/Jim MoneOhio State's lack of consistency on offense has veteran coach Thad Matta flustered.
But he scored -- inside and outside. If Ohio State needed a bucket, Thomas found a way. He was a perplexing matchup for most players at this level. The 6-foot-7 combo forward could exploit smaller wings in the post. He’d also force big men to guard him outside the paint, where they were uncomfortable, due to his range.

On Tuesday, Ohio State -- lacking that elite scoring threat, although LaQuinton Ross was impressive in spurts during his 22-point effort -- needed someone to churn its lumpy offense.

Its defense, usually strong under Matta, was an early anchor. The Buckeyes forced eight turnovers in the first eight minutes of the game. At one point, Minnesota had a 1-to-9 assist-to-turnover ratio. Still, Ohio State only held an 11-10 lead after starting the game by missing 11 of its first 14 shots.

"The shots we felt we were going to get, we got," Matta said. "They, for whatever reason, weren’t going down."

All season, the elephant in the room has been Ohio State’s mediocre offense.

If Ohio State can’t score more consistently and efficiently, how can it win the Big Ten? How can it make a run at the crown? How will it advance in March?

Last season’s squad finished 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. This season’s team is 70th in the same category.

Ohio State’s effort against the Golden Gophers should be a scary exhibit for the program’s supporters.

Ohio State’s fall from the third-ranked team in America to a 2-3 Big Ten team began modestly. The Buckeyes ran through their first 15 games, a slate that included wins over Marquette and Notre Dame. In hindsight those wins weren't special but probably the greatest accomplishments on their flimsy résumé.

But then Michigan State dominated them until the final minutes, when a furious rally pushed the game into overtime before the Buckeyes lost. Iowa was just too big and deep when they beat the Buckeyes in Columbus on Sunday.

Against the Gophers, Ohio State’s offense was disastrous in a game that Big Ten contenders win.

The Buckeyes had chances to pull away in the first half, but they couldn’t find the rim. They committed a turnover (13 total) on five consecutive possessions during a stretch in the second half.

Lenzelle Smith Jr. (3-for-9) missed a dunk. Amir Williams hit the bottom of the backboard on another attempt. Aaron Craft was left alone on the perimeter to miss 3-pointers. Ross went 3-for-8 after halftime.

That wasn't the only problem. Ohio State is usually an elite defensive squad. Its 18 forced turnovers were proof of that, although Minnesota’s 51 percent shooting percentage proved costly.

The Buckeyes were exposed inside by Elliott Eliason (12 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks) in Richard Pitino’s most impressive victory in his first season as head coach.

But Ohio State’s 7-for-22 shooting in the second half ultimately cost it.

The Buckeyes can score, as their 76.0 points per game average suggests, but it’s their inconsistency and limits that create problems. Plus, they’re mishandling the ball (84th in offensive turnover rate, per Ken Pomeroy).

The Buckeyes will continue to struggle against the Big Ten's elite if their offense sputters. And, as Thursday showed, they won’t beat the gritty second-tier teams in the league without some offensive punch.

Ohio State needs quality wins, but they need a go-to guy to help get those wins.

"I think my two years here, this team has always had a security blanket," Ross said. "Last year, it was [Thomas]. The year before that, it was [Jared Sullinger].

It’s clearly different this season.

But they need someone to be consistently assertive and effective -- be it Smith, Ross, or Craft.

On Thursday night in Minneapolis, they all tried to pull Ohio State out of that offensive pit -- and failed.

"We gotta look at reality," Matta said. "As a team, this is where we are. We’ll figure that out on the way home tonight. … People don’t like reality very often."

After Thursday, the reality is that the Buckeyes won’t be Big Ten contenders unless they figure out their offensive flaws. And they need to do that soon.

What we're reading while we use the cold as an excuse to bust out the Blu-Ray copy of “Fargo.” Submit links via Twitter.

  • Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn is back with another edition of his enjoyably wonky Power Rankings, where San Diego State checks in as a top-10 team and this week’s Aaron Craft hyperbole proved totally out of whack -- especially in relation to Michigan State guard Gary Harris: “Friend-o'-the-Rankings Chris Mackinder compiled Defensive Score Sheets from the Spartans' overtime win over Ohio State on Tuesday, and his charting suggests that ESPN's lovefest should have been for Gary Harris instead of Craft. Craft's loose-ball dive near the end of regulation was one of the game's signature plays, and he did force four turnovers, but by DSS' standards -- which take into account field goals and free throws allowed, as well as rebounding -- it was not a Craftacular performance. Harris, meanwhile, forced seven (!) turnovers and 4.5 misses while yielding just three points in 42 minutes, which is incredible.”
  • On Wednesday, Creighton guard Grant Gibbs made his blog debut for USA Today’s “For The Win.” His first post is as funny and well-done as you’d expect, though the timing of his injury Sunday (right after he filed this first dispatch) rearranges the perspective just so. Gibbs will blog periodically for FTW, though, when you think about it, what is a blog, really? (Don’t answer that.)
  • CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb picks Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim as his midseason coach of the year, Orange Nation reacts with a resounding “wait … huh?”
  • UNC put all of coach Roy Williams’ post-Miami-loss press conference on YouTube, and the whole thing is worth a watch -- if you’re the kind of person who likes to watch people not having fun, anyway.
  • Via r/CollegeBasketball: Vanderbilt is offering giveaways to fill the student section … for the Kentucky game. Yeah. Yikes. (Good prize, though!)

Key to OSU-MSU: Transition game

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
For the first time in series history, Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans will meet as top-5 opponents (9 p.m. ET tonight on ESPN).

The AP Poll isn't the only ranking with both teams in the top five.

When the Buckeyes and Spartans meet tonight, the key matchup could be in transition.

Michigan State's transition offense ranks third in the country with 24.3 points per game. Ohio State's transition defense allows just 7.4 points per game, fourth-fewest of any team.

Michigan State transition offense
The Spartans transition offense is led by Gary Harris (6.2 PPG) and Keith Appling (5.3 PPG), who lead the Big Ten in transition scoring.

Michigan State looks to push the ball quickly and often, whether it's off a missed shot, a made shot, or a turnover. The Spartans average 21.5 transition plays per game, the third-most in the country.

Much of their success in transition has to do with their ability to finish well around the basket. The Spartans are shooting 63 percent at the rim this season, eight-best among all teams.

Here's an example of a successful Michigan State transition play and how it transpired:

1. Against Kentucky, Branden Dawson grabbed a defensive rebound in the middle of the paint. Once Dawson secured the rebound, it's evident that all five Kentucky players were turned towards the ball with their eyes on Dawson, while Denzel Valentine was already leaking out in the open court.

2. Without dribbling, Dawson threw the ball ahead to Valentine for an outlet pass over the mid-court line. At the same time, three Michigan State players were spaced out while sprinting down the court with two Kentucky defenders behind them.

3. When Valentine caught the outlet pass, Aaron Harrison was the only Kentucky player back on defense.

4. Dawson -- who originally grabbed the rebound and threw the outlet pass -- beat four Kentucky players down the court, creating a 2-on-1 fast break for the Spartans. Valentine took just one dribble and threw an alley-oop to Dawson for an easy dunk. The entire play lasted less than four seconds.

Ohio State transition defense
Something will have to give in East Lansing tonight, because the Buckeyes transition defense has been just as dominant as the Spartans transition offense this season.

The Buckeyes limit their opponents to just 8.9 transition plays per game, the 14th-fewest of any team. Not only do they limit transition opportunities but they are efficient defending in transition as well. They hold their opponents to the 11th-fewest points per transition play. Teams are shooting just 43 percent against them on those plays.

Let's take a look at an example of an Ohio State defensive transition play that ended with a turnover:

1. After a defensive rebound by Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton, he passed the ball ahead to Demetrius Jackson near mid-court.

2. By the time Jackson caught the outlet pass, four Ohio State defenders were already ahead of the ball. As Jackson dribbled down the right side of the court, the four Ohio State defenders closest to Jackson all appeared to have their eyes on Jackson.

3. As Jackson attacked the basket, all five Ohio State defenders had at least one foot in the paint.

4. Aaron Craft forced Jackson to leave his feet under the basket, and Shannon Scott intercepted the pass.

The tempo of the game could play a large part in the outcome as Ohio State tries to limit Michigan State's easy points.

The Buckeyes transition defense is a large part why they rank second in the country in defensive efficiency and haven't allowed 70 points in any game this season.
Thad Matta assembles top-10 squads most years. The only thing missing from his pristine tenure at Ohio State, which faces Notre Dame on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York, is a national title.

In 2013-14, like most seasons, that goal seems attainable. The Buckeyes haven’t played a great nonconference schedule, so they’re still a difficult group to accurately judge right now. We’ll know soon enough, though, as they’ll play Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 7.

The Buckeyes are statistical juggernauts right now. That can’t be ignored, even though their résumé lacks a win against a team that’s currently ranked in the top 25.

The Buckeyes held Marquette to 35 points and have held seven opponents to 60 or less. They’re ranked first in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings.

Louisville was ranked third when it won the national title last season. Kentucky was eighth during its title run in 2012.

The rules have changed, but Ohio State’s ability to constrict offensive flow has not. Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott and Lenzelle Smith Jr. put a lot of pressure on perimeter players. The Buckeyes are ninth in defensive turnover percentage, per Pomeroy. Former McDonald’s All-American Amir Williams (2.4 BPG) is third in the Big Ten in block percentage.

That’s a dangerous defensive group.

Most of the concerns and questions about Ohio State center on its offense. With Deshaun Thomas gone, scoring by committee is Ohio State’s approach this season, which isn't a bad thing.

Too many teams earn exaggerated praise for scoring in bunches. That doesn’t necessarily suggest that they’re good, though.

Plus, the Buckeyes are a solid offensive team (31st in adjusted offensive efficiency). They’re just anchored by their defense.

Ohio State doesn’t have to win a shootout over the weekend to prove folks wrong, but a victory over the Fighting Irish might be more valuable if Mike Brey’s squad continues to shake its early rust and excel in the ACC.

The Buckeyes don’t need a guy who can score 25 per night to be viewed as a great team. Their defensive approach proves that they are.

They’ve scored 80 or more three times this season, but those tallies came against subpar competition.

Level of competition won't be an issue in the Big Ten. If the Buckeyes continue their defensive prowess, they could end the season at the top of the Big Ten and with a slot in Arlington.

Big Ten, ACC deadlocked once again

December, 5, 2013

The 15th annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge ended with no resolution to conference supremacy. For the second straight season the clash ended in a 6-6 tie, leaving the ACC with a 10-3-2 advantage.

We know which teams really won the night though: North Carolina, for sure, with its upset over No. 1 Michigan State. No. 8 Wisconsin, which like the Tar Heels won on the road, beating Virginia. And No. 5 Ohio State, which is on a steady ascent up the polls.

On the surface the Buckeyes' win doesn't look that big, as they had unranked Maryland at home. But the way they controlled the game from start to finish and gave the Terrapins a harsh introduction to the league they'll join next year.

Defensively, Ohio State dissected everything the Terps wanted to do. Maryland shot just 39 percent from the field and gave up 25 points off 14 turnovers. That included the final sequence of the first half, when Aaron Craft dove to the floor for a steal and passed ahead to Sam Thompson for a buzzer-beating basket.

[+] EnlargeSam Thompson
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesSam Thompson's highlight-reel dunks capped off a dominating night for No. 5 Ohio State.
The Buckeyes basically beat the Terps like a ranked team should at home. They never let the lead dip below 10 the entire second half and once up 25 turned the game into one long highlight reel for Thompson.

Columbus discovered the alley-oop Wednesday night as Thompson slammed down lobs on four different occasions.

And those shooting woes that threatened to drag down OSU seem to be a thing of the past too. The Buckeyes shot 52 percent from the field, powered by LaQuinton Ross' 7-of-13 performance. Ross finished with a game-high 20 points.

Ohio State honored former coach Gary Williams prior to the game. Williams coached the Buckeyes from 1986-89 before leaving Columbus for College Park, where he would win the 2002 national title at Maryland. Williams then had to sit through the Terps being handled by the Buckeyes.

Chris Collins also returned to familiar territory, as the Northwestern coach returned to ACC country for the first time since taking the Wildcats job in the offseason. Collins, who played for Duke and also spent 13 years as an assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski, knows Northwestern's opponent Wednesday, NC State, well. But his intimate knowledge didn’t help the Wildcats muster a win.

Collins’ welcome-back package included a technical foul and 22 points from T.J. Warren, as the Wolfpack cruised to a 69-48 win.

Purdue matched NC State for the biggest margin of victory in the challenge with its 88-67 victory over Boston College. The Boilermakers, led by a season-high 18 points from Terone Johnson, have quietly won five straight in the challenge.

Nebraska salvaged the night for the Big Ten by beating Miami 60-49 in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers held the Canes to a frigid 24 percent shooting performance in the first half en route to a season-low 13 points at the break.

Michigan State didn’t hit new lows against the Tar Heels, it simply didn’t hit back at all.

Most expected Northwestern, Boston College and Miami to have a hard time winning on the road. No one expected the Spartans to lack the fight generally accepted as the norm from Tom Izzo’s team. Even though they bounced back from a 12-point deficit in the first half to tie the game at intermission, they never seemed to bring the fight to the Tar Heels.

MSU’s punchless night could be summed up in one second-half exchange. Branden Dawson seemingly had a clear path to the rim and was poised to give Sparty its first lead of the game, breaking a 38-38 tie. But J.P. Tokoto rotated in time to block the shot and start a fast break that ended with Marcus Paige completing a three-point play.

Carolina never trailed afterward and Michigan State literally hobbled through the rest of the game.

Senior forward Adreian Payne kept cramping up, at one point during the middle of a play, he literally stood on one leg while grabbing his other foot behind him to stretch. Gary Harris, who sat out Michigan State's win over Mount St. Mary’s with an ankle injury, seemed to lack some of his explosiveness. Keith Appling suffered an apparent hip injury late in the first half and shot 5-of-15 from the field.

Virginia joined Michigan State as a big loser from Wednesday night. The Cavs have made quite the acquaintance with the NCAA bubble and missed possibly their last chance for a statement win before conference play begins.

Both of the Cavaliers' losses have come at home to ranked teams, and the common thread is that they haven’t mustered much offense either time.

UVA, which lost to VCU 59-56 on a last-second shot, scored its lowest point total in 20 years against Wisconsin. The Cavs managed only 18 points in the second half, and their total of 38 was the lowest output since losing to UConn 77-36 in 1993.

So while the challenge ended in a tie, the winners and losers Wednesday were clearly defined.

New rules put premium on backcourt play

November, 16, 2013

Marquette’s anemic offensive output in its 52-35 loss to Ohio State on Saturday afternoon wasn’t exactly what the NCAA men’s basketball competition committee had in mind when it sought to increase scoring this season.

Freedom of movement meant the Golden Eagles could miss more shots without being impeded by a hand check. The Buckeyes weren’t any better in the first half, as they needed a late basket to tie the game at 19 going into intermission.

It was the lowest combined halftime score in Division I this season.

Despite the rules to benefit offense and increase scoring, a team without at least one scorer in the backcourt is a team that is going to struggle.

[+] EnlargeDavante Gardner
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsDavante Gardner is a force inside, but Marquette is learning that the new rules mean backcourt scoring is more important than ever.
Marquette was the prime example Saturday.

Yes, it’s still early in the season and teams are adapting to new personnel and new lineups.

But other ranked teams like Florida, Virginia and Syracuse -- all of which started freshman point guards -- managed to work through slow first-half starts to post double-digit victories.

The Golden Eagles, who had to replace their entire starting backcourt from last season, actually shot worse in the second half. After making just 6 of 29 shots in the first half, they made just 4 of 24 in the second.

It wasn’t the pace of the game that led to their low scoring output. They had 20 turnovers. They missed open shots. And that snowballed into taking bad shots, too.

Even senior forward Davante Gardner, all 6-foot-8 and 290 pounds of him, for some reason felt compelled to launch a 3-pointer in the first half, which marked just his eighth career attempt.

The strength of the Golden Eagles is in their front court, with Gardner and Chris Otule on the blocks. Neither one of those guys can break down a defender off the dribble and create his own shot. That should be up to the backcourt, but no one in the Golden Eagles’ current rotation fits that description.

Junior guard Derrick Wilson isn’t a scorer. He’d taken only a combined two field goal attempts in their first two games, and went 1-for-7 against the Buckeyes. Wilson had never really played extended minutes at point guard, either, but is being forced in the role this season.

Senior Jake Thomas is a good spot-up shooter, but never quite got any open looks. Although he entered the game making 3 of 7 from behind the arc, he missed all seven of his shot attempts against the Buckeyes, including six 3-pointers.

Junior Todd Mayo generally is a scoring boost to the backcourt from off the bench. He scored a team-high 11 points Saturday, but needed 15 shots to get there.

Ohio State’s backcourt shook off its 7-of-26 shooting performance in the first half thanks to its backcourt getting better shots in the second half. And by better shots I mean layups and runouts.

Shannon Scott led the charge for Ohio State, going 5-for-10 in the second half to finish with 13 points. Scott missed all four of his 3-point attempts but kept attacking the rim for high-percentage shots.

Aaron Craft, meanwhile, went 4-of-5 in the second half after making just one of his four shots in the first. He got layups, too, and the Buckeyes scored 12 points before the first media timeout of the second half.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta could expect that from his veteran backcourt. Freshman point guards London Perrantes at Virginia, Tyler Ennis at Syracuse and Kasey Hill at Florida seem to be slowly learning despite stumbling blocks.

Perrantes only scored five points in the Cavaliers’ 70-57 win over Davidson, but he added five assists and no turnovers. He didn’t need to score, as backcourt mate Malcolm Brogdon netted 17 on 7-of-10 shooting.

Ennis had a shaky season debut, but has played well in the two games since, including his 12-point performance as the Orange beat Colgate 69-50.

Hill is starting for the Gators while Scott Wilbekin serves his suspension. Hill had six assists and scored eight of his 14 points in the second half and helped Florida run past Arkansas-Little Rock 86-56 despite being tied at the half.

Ohio State-Marquette a year in the making

November, 14, 2013
Ohio State and Marquette were supposed to play on a ship off the coast of South Carolina last season.

Condensation on the court canceled that game.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta said there was no correlation in wanting to play the Golden Eagles again. That's hard to believe, but he said the series was on the docket, regardless of the inability to complete the game last season.

Still, the potential of last season's game still remains just as vibrant Saturday when they finally meet -- this time indoors in Milwaukee.

The Buckeyes and Golden Eagles are both legitimate contenders in the Big Ten and Big East, respectively. But they've also changed a bit. Marquette doesn't have Vander Blue, the late-game scorer from a season ago, or its point guard, Junior Cadougan. DeShaun Thomas is gone for the Buckeyes.

Marquette could have the advantage inside with Davante Gardner, but the Buckeyes have the edge at the point with Aaron Craft. The game-within-the-game matchup, though, that will be the most intriguing to follow is how the game is officiated. Matta said Craft won't and hasn't had an issue with using his feet to defend instead of his hands. Marquette has traditionally been a physically strong defensive team. This will be an intriguing test for both teams. How does Marquette defend Craft and Shannon Scott? How well will the Buckeyes move their feet inside to deal with the size and strength of Gardner? The onus will be on Sam Thompson and Amir Williams.

Gardner has been a load inside, averaging 17 points in Marquette's first two games. Marquette put up 114 points against Grambling. The Golden Eagles have a rugged slate of games, playing at Arizona State, at Wisconsin and against New Mexico in Las Vegas. This Ohio State game is the lone home game on this slate, putting even more pressure on Marquette to get a quality nonconference win.

Ohio State, which has had balanced scoring so far, plays only one more nonconference game away from home -- against Notre Dame in the Gotham Classic in New York. The Buckeyes will have plenty of chances for quality power-rating points, but a win here would be a major boost for the team's confidence in ultimately what it can accomplish in the heart of the Big Ten schedule.

The state of the Big Ten

November, 5, 2013

In recent years, the Big Ten has boasted an assembly of athletes who have boosted the league to the top of college basketball’s conference rankings.

Players who could’ve turned pro returned and granted the league a lineup of experienced players who carried their respective squads for multiple seasons. Evan Turner, Trey Burke, Cody Zeller, Draymond Green, Deshaun Thomas, Jared Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others had opportunities to sign NBA contracts a year or two earlier than they did. Instead, they stayed and strengthened their teams and subsequently, the entire conference.

Prior to changes at Minnesota and Northwestern this past offseason, only four of the 12 Big Ten schools (Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Penn State) had changed head coaches in the previous five seasons. That continuity has fueled immense success for a league that has earned 20 total bids in the last three NCAA tournaments.

There are, however, more questions now.

Other than Michigan State, the Big Ten’s membership enters the season possessing promise but also dealing with a rare uncertainty. Michigan and Ohio State return elite talent, but you can’t ignore what both lost from last season. Indiana could blossom behind some youngsters, but how many teams improve after a pair of top-five picks turn pro? A fleet of seniors have left Madison. Iowa is still a “maybe” to many.

Illinois and Purdue? They’ll either surprise or spend the year at the bottom of the league.

Even with four teams cracking the Associated Press’ Top 25 preseason poll, the Big Ten is somewhat of a mystery as this weekend’s tipoff to the 2013-14 season approaches. Still, there’s plenty of hope for many squads in this league.

There’s just a lot we don’t know (yet) about the Big Ten.

The Contenders

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Andy ManisTom Izzo has a Michigan State team with enough talent to return to the Final Four.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo has another capable crew in East Lansing this season. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling anchor the Big Ten favorite and national title contender. Gary Harris is a future lottery pick who could campaign for All-American honors. Whenever Izzo has this much talent and experience, his teams usually reach the Final Four.

Michigan: The answer is no. No, the Wolverines won’t replace Wooden Award winner Burke no matter how productive Derrick Walton Jr. is in his freshman season. But John Beilein’s pillars -- Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary -- and his stellar recruits should give Michigan a serious shot at the Big Ten crown.

Ohio State: Somehow, Aaron Craft is still eligible and available to squash the dreams of perimeter players throughout the country. Without Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes will probably spread the ball around more than they did last season. But LaQuinton Ross -- assuming we see the same player who lit up the Big Dance a few months ago -- might be the star Thad Matta needs to make a postseason run and snatch another Big Ten crown.

The (Possible) Contenders

Indiana: If exhibitions are to be believed, then Yogi Ferrell has become a more dangerous threat from the field since registering a 45.4 effective field goal percentage last season. That matters, but not as much as the maturation of the rest of the roster does (will). How much production will Noah Vonleh and a bunch of inexperienced youngsters give Tom Crean? We’ll find out soon.

Wisconsin: Say it with me three times: “I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin.” Once again, however, there are a few reasons to doubt the Badgers, simply because they’re entering the season without a trio of seniors (Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren) who made a major difference last season, and they’re depending on a point guard who's returning from a serious knee injury (Josh Gasser). Sam Dekker and Co. will probably maintain Bo Ryan’s streak of 20-win seasons (10 in a row) and top-four finishes in the Big Ten.

Iowa: The rebuilding phase is over, folks. The Hawkeyes return every meaningful player from a team that won 25 games and finished 9-9 in conference play during the 2012-13 season. It’s time for Iowa to finally make some noise in the Big Ten race and get back to the NCAA tourney. Fran McCaffery has the pieces to achieve both.

The Questionable

Purdue: The last thing Matt Painter needed was a bout of early drama involving young star A.J. Hammons. But that’s exactly what he’s facing after Hammons was recently suspended for three games after violating team rules. If Hammons gets his act together -- it’s always if with him -- the Boilermakers could sneak into the at-large mix.

Illinois: Same for John Groce’s squad. Groce adds eight new faces to the program. This is a much different team compared to the one that reached the NCAA tournament last year. But if Groce can help transfer Rayvonte Rice become the star he was at Drake two seasons ago, Illinois might make a case for another berth.

The Bottom

Minnesota: Richard Pitino has his father’s last name and hair, but nothing resembling the players Rick Pitino used to win the national title with Louisville in April.

Northwestern: Chris Collins is already making strides in recruiting, but he doesn’t have the beef inside to compete in the Big Ten yet.

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a new arena, but Tim Miles’ squad has the same problems.

Penn State: Tim Frazier will have to carry a very heavy load. Again.

3-point shot: Players to watch

October, 30, 2013

Andy Katz discusses which players to watch this season, the impact of new rules, and expectations for Ole Miss in 2014.

Aaron Craft no longer on the market

September, 10, 2013
I don't mean this as a pejorative, but Aaron Craft is that guy.

You know that guy. While most college-aged males are barely one evolutionary step above zygotes, there is always that super smart, focused guy you know who knew he wanted to be an accountant or whatever by age 10. Said dude is always finished with his credits and pursuing a master's degree by junior year, at which point he starts his own small business, participates in a wide range of campus activities, volunteers at the local dog shelter and saves enough money to buy his high school sweetheart (or whomever) an engagement ring, because he just can't wait to settle down and start a family in his medium-sized midwestern hometown. He parties, too, but never too much. His shirt is usually tucked in. He has real silverware in his apartment, which is always clean. You really want to hate him, but you can't, because he's way too nice.

Everybody knows that guy.

Ohio State's rising senior point guard has long verged on "that guy" status. Not only is Craft a very, very good college basketball player -- probably the best perimeter defender in the country for each of his three (very successful) seasons, as well as a more-than-capable floor general and team leader -- he is also quite possibly the highest-achieving student-athlete in college sports. In 2012, he received the NCAA's Elite 89 award, which is "presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the final site for each NCAA championship," when he clocked in with a 3.89 GPA. Last summer, he was still openly bugging about the lone B he received in college, during a freshman chemistry class. ("It's a humbling thing. A sad day in the Craft household," Craft told last August. "It reminded me that not all is going to be handed to me." That left Craft's GPA at 3.87, "which is ridiculous, because it needs to be rounded up.")

The summer of 2012 was also the one in which Craft, miffed at having surgery to clear up bone spurs in his foot, found an academic silver lining: “The best thing about it is, he’s got two ‘bear’ classes right now, molecular genetics and physics," John Craft told the Columbus Dispatch last June. "The one, he is in class for four hours Tuesday through Friday, and he tells me he enjoys it because he can sit in the front of the classroom and put his leg up on a chair and not have to move around."

In other words, it was not exactly surprising to see the news -- broken in true muckraking fashion by Tuesday -- that Aaron Craft has decided to make his That Guy status official. He is now engaged to be married.

That tweet comes from the @CRAFTroomies Twitter account, which broke the news to nearly 10,000 followers, many of them disappointed female fans. And yes, @CRAFTroomies really does appear to be a Twitter account run by Aaron Craft's roomies; covering Craft's every move -- waiting for the bus on his "last first day of school,", his excitement about NSYNC's Video Music Awards reunion, his affinity for stars and stripes bandanas and his casual grilling prowess, among many others. At least, I hope the account is actually run by Craft's roommates. That would be really creepy if it wasn't.

Anyway, point is, the cycle has been completed. Aaron Craft -- star basketball player, academic whiz-kid, and now fiance -- is officially that guy. As his dad told last summer, "He just marches to the beat of a different drummer." Godspeed, Aaron. When you run for your Senate seat, we'll say we knew you when.