Is Craft OSU’s Best-Ever Defender?

By Jeff Rapp, January 17th, 2013

Welcome to what we like to call the Ruckus, but only because this segment of the site lead to lively discussion and debate, not because anyone is trying to shake up the world.

In this installment, editor Jeff Rapp sits down with Matt McCoy, the renowned sports director at 610 WTVN (AM) in Columbus, and WTVN analyst Tony White, a former Ohio State captain.

They got together Mon., Jan. 14 for a live rendition of “Bucksline,” during which the panel discussed OSU’s 56-53 upset win over No. 2 Michigan on Sunday and delved into other Ohio State basketball-related topics during the hour-long program.

A former OSU swim team captain, McCoy has been covering Ohio State football and basketball for basically two decades and also serves as the PA announcer for home games at the Schottenstein Center. White is a former Ohio State forward (1986-89) and currently is one of the leading attorneys in central Ohio who serves as the partner-in-charge of Thompson Hine LLC.

Rapp, of course, has been a fixture at Ohio State football and basketball games since 1991 and has been a trusted reporter for those programs ever since.

We pick up their conversation at the WTVN studios as they debate the defensive merits of current OSU point guard Aaron Craft:

McCoy: You can be part of the show by e-mail, by sending me an e-mail at Bucksline@WTVN.com, and we’ve got a great question from Dale, it was sent after the Michigan win: “Who is a better Ohio State all-time defensive player – Aaron Craft or Ken Johnson?”

White: Or Tony White.

(Jeff laughs.)

McCoy: Tony, you were excluded from this question.

White: That wasn’t part of the e-mail?

McCoy: No, it was not. But I want to get you guys’ opinions, because I think it’s a terrific question. I made a comment – he sent me this e-mail after this morning – and I was talking to Joel Riley about how much fun it was … We talked about it being an ugly game, but if you just love basketball, which I do and I know you guys do, the one-on-one matchup to watch Trey Burke and Aaron Craft was tremendous, because Burke is so talented and so gifted, and Craft busting his behind, so talented, so gifted on the defensive end. For me, there were 10 guys on the floor but I was watching two the whole time. It was fun to watch.

Dale writes, and I agree 100 percent, “The Burke-Craft matchup was fantastic. I’ve been going to OSU basketball games for 25 years and I can’t decide. Who do you think is a better Ohio State defensive player, Craft or Ken Johnson? I remember Johnson night after night changing the game with shot blocks, but Craft changes the game, too. What do you guys think?”

Tony I’ll let you go first.

White: First, let me say it makes me nervous that somebody who’s been going to Ohio State games for 25 years only saw two of my years.

(Matt laughs.)

McCoy: That’s true. The years are flying by there, Tony.

White: Ho-oly smokes.

McCoy: And you were omitted for your post defense.

White: What’s that all about? But as for between the two, it’s not even close in my mind. It’s Aaron Craft. Ken Johnson was a great shot blocker …

McCoy: Which shocks me because you always go for the big guy.

White: Most of the time I do. I’ve got to defend my bigs. And Ken Johnson was a great shot blocker. He changed the game from a shot-blocking perspective. And that’s something that Aaron Craft really can’t do as a guard; you can’t really change the game defensively. But Ken was an off-the-ball defender. He was a guy who changed shots and blocked shots of other people’s guys, for the most part. Not necessarily his guy.

If you remember Ken, he was thin, he didn’t have the Jared Sullinger force behind him on the post, so a lot of teams would put a post player on Ken Johnson and post him up and take the ball into him because one-on-one he didn’t necessarily position himself well. He sometimes got lazy with his feet and with his positioning because he was such a great shot blocker. So he was vulnerable to the one-on-one game down low. But if you weren’t his guy shooting, you better be careful, because Ken Johnson was blocking a heck of a lot of shots.

McCoy: Great help defender.

White: Aaron Craft is the best defender I’ve ever seen in college basketball, period. One-on-one, (in) help, anticipating things, in transition, the whole nine yards. The guy is just special.

The obvious things you can see, but as a player, as a former player, I know what is good defense and bad defense and I know the subtle parts of the game. He does some of the subtle parts of the game that just blows my mind. When I watch him out there it is awe-inspiring to see what he does at the subtle levels on defense that just changes everything, and it’s not even close. The guy is the best there is. Period.

McCoy: Well, Coach (Thad) Matta has talked about that. He’s said that to us before in interviews – “He does things you guys don’t even see” …

White: Yeah, it’s right.

McCoy: … “in terms of scouting reports, understanding, he knows what the other guy is doing before us on the bench even do.” I agree with you. Jeff, what do you think?

Rapp: Well, obviously we’re comparing apples and oranges. I wanted to go devil’s advocate on Tony and I was all prepared for him to defend the big guy and then I could stump for the little guy, but I have to agree.

When you look at today’s game also … and this is weird for me to say because I’m and old-school guy, too, and we grew up watching basketball knowing that the game – and it still very much is, by the way – is about defensively protecting the basket, holding down the lane. And we grew up watching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone and on and on the list goes. But when you look at today’s game and all the threes being jacked up and the importance of keeping things under control out on that perimeter, when you add that aspect you could really put the checkmark on Aaron’s side because he’s not only, as I said it earlier, kind of slaying the dragon from the head, he’s also making everyone better at the top of the defense.

Thad was saying yesterday after the game that Aaron was going up to teammates saying, “Quit helping.”

McCoy: “Stop helping. I’ve got this.”

Rapp: “Stay on your guy and I’ve got it.” And this is an All-American, by the way, he’s stifling.

McCoy: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Nik Stauskas, who’s been tremendous for Michigan, only got three shots, because you don’t have to help.

White: Oh, I agree.

McCoy: They probably told them, “Aaron’s got it. Don’t help.” …

White: Without a doubt.

McCoy: … “Do not leave this guy. He’ll kill you.”

White: That’s one of the reasons. You talk about Ken Johnson and his ability, he changed the game because of his shot-blocking ability. Well, Aaron Craft changed that game, too, because he really took out two guys, actually more than that, because Trey Burke wasn’t able to drive and dish to guys because were helping off trying to keep Trey Burke from scoring.

Those lanes weren’t created as much because Ohio State was able … they had the luxury of saying, “OK, Aaron’s got that guy, he’s not going to drive and create separation from the other defenders. They’re going to have to figure it out on their own and we’re going to go one-on-one with Trey Burke.”

Stauskas kind of stood there. He didn’t really have a lot of opportunity to get a lot of open shots because his guy didn’t have to help.

Rapp: I would also add, and Tony alluded to this, Aaron was more of a polished defender or he was already a finished product when he got here in terms of that side of the basketball. I saw it at the AAU level. It was comical watching these kids clear out because here’s this little Aaron Craft guarding them. These highly ranked point guards were just licking their chops to take him to the hole, only they couldn’t take him to the hole. And Jared Sullinger talked about that while he was here, how it was just comical to see that.

Ken Johnson, let me say this, is one of my favorite stories in the history of Ohio State basketball. We’re also talking about the all-time leading shot blocker in the history of the Big Ten. When he was first here, if you recall, Jim O’Brien wasn’t even sure if this kid was going to be able to cut the mustard …

McCoy: Right.

Rapp: … emotionally, physically, or any other way. It is a great story what he became. And I would also say I don’t know if we’re ever going to see Aaron steal 10 times in a game. We saw Ken Johnson get 10 blocks.

(Matt laughs.)

Rapp: But what we’re talking about in the overall, you can’t stat everything that explains great defense. And Aaron, just trust us. He’s it. He’s it.

McCoy: Ken Johnson might be the most improved player that I’ve seen at Ohio State, but I’m with you on the Aaron Craft thing.