Craftwerk: The Containment of Trey Burke

By Kyle Rowland on January 15, 2013 at 10:00a

When Ohio State sprinted out to leads of 16-3, 26-6 and 29-8 against Michigan on Sunday, many wondered where that offense was all season. In losses to Duke, Kansas and Illinois, the Buckeyes’ scoring chances were limited and mostly came on low-percentage jump shots. 

Aaron Craft is a sight Trey Burke would rather not see.

Knowing that trend could not continue if Ohio State wanted to knock Michigan from the land of the unbeatens, Thad Matta urged the Buckeyes to pick up the pace and attack the rim. Ohio State did so with regularity, scoring 28 of their 56 points in the paint, en route to a 56-53 victory.

But it wasn’t an elaborate offensive gameplan that ushered the Big Ten’s three-time defending champion back into the league's consciousness. Instead, defense was the engine the Buckeyes used to establish themself as a threat to Indiana, Michigan and the rest of the nation’s top conference.

At the heart of the turnaround was, guess who, Aaron Craft. To this point, Craft’s year has been filled with sluggish offensive performances and critics in his ear diminishing what he brings to Ohio State.

He can’t win without Jared Sullinger. Shannon Scott should start over him. Matta made a mistake betting on  Craft and not offering Trey Burke. It’s all been said.

Craft played through it and his defense rarely waned. But in a matchup with Burke, whose first 16 games created national player of the year talk, Craft operated at a level few college basketball players can approach.

And he did it alone.

The bulldog of a defender barked at his teammates to stop helping on defense. Craft didn't need help with Burke.

“He had a unique way about him today before the game,” Matta said of his pit bull of a guard. “As a coach, you study body language, you study the facial expressions of your players. I knew he was going to be ready to play at the level we needed him to.”

What Ohio State needed was a Herculean effort. Even at home, the Buckeyes were staring at a 2-2 start in the Big Ten with a trip to East Lansing looming. The last thing the Buckeyes wanted or needed was to play from behind in a conference that has an entire lot full of bullies.

Understanding the magnitude of the mid-January tussle, Ohio State put on a show for the sold-out, ear-rattling crowd. Michigan was held to a smorgasbord of season lows – points (53), field goal percentage (38.3 percent) and field goals made (18). It entered the game scoring 81 points and converting over half its field goal attempts. The defense didn’t just put a cap on the Wolverines’ scoring opportunities; they also created offense on the opposite end of the court. Ohio State turned 13 Michigan turnovers into 18 points.

Burke finished an underwhelming 4 of 13 from the field with 15 points. He only had one basket in the first half. The rest of his stat line read: four rebounds, four assists, four turnovers. Not exactly inspiring.

All hands were on deck in Ohio State's week-long sweep. 

“He’s one of the best defenders,” Burke said of Craft. “You’ve got to give him credit, he’s a great defender. I love playing against him because he makes me better, he makes me work.”

Said Michigan head coach John Beilein: “Thad’s teams have always been this way, but this one, the perimeter defense in particular is exceptional. Craft is as good as there is, as good as I've ever seen. He's tremendous. I just applaud that.”

No other player brings out the best in Craft quite like Burke. The two Ohioans have squared off four times while three of the games have featured vintage Craft defensive performances.

Due to the dynamic involved, it’s apparent both Craft and Burke take the one-on-one showdown personally. But Burke hasn’t learned how to channel that energy into a positive outcome on the court.

“When you tend to make things personal in games like this, you tend not to play your best,” Craft said. “He’s still learning. He’s a sophomore, and the sky’s the limit for him at this point.”

Burke nearly went into orbit in the closing seconds. A step-back three-pointer that would have given Michigan the lead went halfway down before the home crowd willed it out the basket. All Burke could do was look to the heavens and shake his head in disbelief.

“It was a good shot with the clock running down,” said Beilein, still having trouble fathoming how the ball didn’t go in. “Halfway down.”

“I thought he made it,” Craft said.

Tim Hardaway Jr. only made five of his 15 attempts from the field and freshman sensation Nik Stauskas went scoreless. Stauskas entered the game as the Big Ten’s top three-point shooter, converting more than 52 percent of his attempts, but on Sunday he finished 0-fer from beyond the arc.

“They weren’t leaving him,” Burke said. “Ohio State did a great job of taking him away.”

That was the goal.

“We told our guards we had to chase hard and try to make him put it on the floor and make some decisions,” Craft said. “Don’t give him anything easy quickly.”

Ohio State’s team defense was the theme in a week that vaulted them back into the college basketball stratosphere. At 11-3 to begin the week, the Buckeyes’ obituary was already being written, the 2012-13 season being deemed a complete bust.

But on Tuesday night in West Lafayette, Ohio State held Purdue to just 38 percent shooting at Mackey Arena. DJ Byrd, who has been a thorn in the Buckeyes’ side, only attempted six shots and finished with six points.

The suffocating nature of the Buckeye defense is the element that will keep them alive in the Big Ten race. 

“Ohio State is a really, really good defensive team. Really good,” Beilein said. “You're watching a team that plays big-time defense and really buys into it.”

Now, they’re also buying into their status as a contender.


Comments Show All Comments

Michael Citro's picture

Excellent headline. Are you a Krautrock fan?

gwalther's picture

Great stuff. Pumped for the game Saturday.

Class of 2008

RedStorm45's picture

Here'd be a good forum question (for those who have been watching Buckeye basketball for 15+ years) defensive player - Craft or Ken Johnson?
BTN did a short analysis on his defense with a few clips after the Nebraska game.  It's staff that you can't quantify or that will show up in stats.  A lot of teams use hand-off exchanges as a pseudo-screen and Craft fights through that better than anyone I've ever seen.  He's right in the guard's face as soon as he receives the ball.  He's also been more vocal on both ends this year (now without Lighty, Diebler, Buford, Sully, etc.).  I know the offense hasn't been there (still under 40% from the field) but you just can't quantify his presence on defense.  No one has to help on the ball screens or drives typically, which means the wings can contest more easily on any kick outs.  It's hard to change a game defensively on the perimeter, usually it's a shot-blocking center who changes the game.  But Craft really cuts the head off from the snake so to speak.  The opposing PG is under constant pressure once across half court.  I wish they had a stat for 5 second calls drawn (Craft has to have 50+ in his career)...similar to SI's Craft-o-meter.

BrooklynBuckeye's picture

Yeah I agree its an interesting question. I think you are right in that crafts defensive dominance is more rare than ken Johnson, who dominated in a similar fashion to anthony davis, ewing, david robinson, etc... I have a hard time remembering a guard who could singlehandedly disrupt an offense so thoroughly as craft. Was wojo that good? Hard to remember because I assumed he was vastly overrated for being a dookie. A buddy of mine is a gator fan, and he thought craft was overrated until he completely owned their talented guards. When someone doesnt seem like a physical freak he will have doubters until tipoff.

buckifishr's picture

Tough to compare Craft to Ken Johnson because they play/ played such different positions.  Johnson could not possibly have defeneded on the perimeter as Craft does, just as Craft could not possibly be the eraser on the interior that Johnson was. 
I don't know that I could pick one, but daydream of a team that had both.  Could anyone score against them?  ha

ohiostbux5's picture

Hard to have a "best defender in the last 15 years" topic without David Lighty's name at least brought into the conversation

buckifishr's picture

Very true, Lighty may have been able to depend more positions than either Carft or Johnson. 

Ashtabula's picture

I agree totally.  Craft is the best on-ball defender I have ever seen.  However, help defense, shot blocking, defensive rebounding and the ability to guard multiple positions (enabling teammates to switch) are also very important.  Johnson, Lighty, Funderburke, Dials, Carter are superior to him in some of these other categories.  How about Herb Williams and Luke Witte for the older crowd?

RedStorm45's picture

Lightly never changed a game flow the way Craft does however.

Squirrel Master's picture

Lighty did change the game flow, probably even moreso than Craft does. Craft is consistent with his lockdown defense and when it is time to rise to the occassion, he gets the job done.
but Lighty would take over games on both sides of the ball and would own the court for those moments. I remember seeing Lighty cover the best opponent on offense, again despite position, and shut him down, then come down the court and hit a dagger from 3 that would tie the game or increase a lead. He always had some moments where it was a 5 point swing!
Craft would deny the opponent from scoring but I have yet to see him do it and then drain a 3 at the other end of the court right after.
Craft changes games throughout the game by frustrating the ball handler or making the right plays but Lighty took over games at the best moments. For my money, I would say Craft is the best defender ever at OSU but if I needed one guy for a stop and score, it would be Lighty.

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

RedStorm45's picture

Lighty never had to guard the primary ball handler for 30+ minutes a game.  Do you recall a bunch of 5 second calls lighty drew? Me neither.  Craft is well ahead of Lighty.  But Dave has the advantage in terms of versatility.  And Lighty's offense didn't really take off until his last 2 years.

buckifishr's picture

Would have to disagree on the last part.  Defense was the reason Lighty cracked the lineup as a freshman and sophomore.

Squirrel Master's picture

I truly think the biggest difference between now and earlier is that Amir Williams is starting. When he is on the court and playing at least decently, this defense is lock down! I also think Amir is starting to make a mark on offense as well and that low post threat is starting to open up the outside a bit. We are witnessing a team in transition and I am excited to see what it looks like come tourney time.
Sam Thompson is also playing like a beast. I think I have seen at least one of the following in each of the last few games: an outside shot fall, block, dunk and lockdown defense on a wing that usually hurts OSU. Just think about the fact that DJ Byrd and Stauskas combined for 6 points and perhaps 8 shots total. I think those guys average 10-13 points each and 9 shots a game. That is lockdown baby!

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

buckifishr's picture

Amir still frustrates me to watch because he is so timid on the floor.  Just dunk the damn ball when you get it.
I think he frustrates me so much because we saw how good he could be against Syracuse last year.  He just isn't consistent yet.  But when he becomes consistent, watch out.

bhsiba99's picture

Going by his body language, I almost expect him to apologize to the opposing player after he makes a basket. :)

OldColumbusTown's picture

The MOST frustrating thing to me about watching Amir on the offensive end is his propensity to drop the ball down below his waist.  I've never seen a big guy get stripped so many times at the rim (or even watch how many times he gets fouled right under the basket because he leaves the ball there for an easy strip attempt).  He should be converting those into "and one's" when he's so close to the hoop.

rgarrett22's picture

You must not have watched any of Tristan Thompson's first season and a half with the Cavs. Thankfully, TT has started to rid himself of that immensely annoying trait.

Squirrel Master's picture

I think you guys are not seeing the progress though. True he does all the things that annoy you guys but do you remember how much worst he was? He couldn't catch a pass to save his life, his hands were like bricks. He always was out of position and let layups happen even though he could swipe it into the stands. He was not even ready to get backup minutes let alone start.
Despite the mistakes he still makes like you guys point out, he is getting rebounds, blocking shots and actually catching some passes and has at least 1 or 2 moves that are pretty slick. The kid is learning fast and soon will be something for teams to worry about. As of right now, he is making teams think twice about driving the lane and working the inside. I really can see him challenging Cody Zeller and being the reason OSU beats Indy. At least at the Schott, maybe not in Indy.

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

BUCKEYE2124's picture

i think amir is biggewst diff too look what whitey was doin against evan he is a presence if he would just get sully agression

Squirrel Master's picture

yep. and did you see Amir against Withey when he was in? He was blocking and altering his shots all over the place. Amir is starting material on defense right now. Offensively he is a work in progress.

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

BrewstersMillions's picture

The good news is that what makes Amir such a bad offensive player (not being able to hold on to a ball) might help him defensivley (Getting his hands on a ball and not having to catch it!).

Squirrel Master's picture

I think his hands are getting better. Either that or Craft and Co. are learning the best way to get him the ball. Until recently, you couldn't throw up a lob to him (open even) without him fumbling it and turning it over. Now he catches bounce passes while he is breaking towards the basket off a pick and roll. That is a huge difference than in the past.
I just believe if they continue to feed him and he continues to develop, we could be looking at a possible in-out game between him and Thomas. Something this team has been wanting since Three-bler!

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I think Nix is going to kill us down low this weekend.  That is what I'm most worried about.

Read my entire screen name....

Squirrel Master's picture

Post play is something I always worry about when playing MSU. They just seem to be so sound in the post.
Plus its not just Nix, don't forget about Payne too. They are tough.
I would be more surprised with a win over MSU on saturday than the win last weekend. I have always thought UM was a bit overrated and MSU is always underrated.

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

tennbuckeye19's picture

Plus its not just Nix, don't forget about Payne too. They are tough.

Is it wrong of me to wish both of them twist their ankles prior to the game this weekend? Nothing serious, just enough to keep them either out of the game or render them unproductive in the post.

Squirrel Master's picture

I was hoping they would get the flu and be bed ridden for a week or so. In fact, half the team just comes down with the bug.
As much as I am concerned about their post pressence, I think OSU's wings and guards are better and should control this game more. Last few years was about establishing Sully in the post and in order to do that, you have to deal with Nix and Payne. Now its Thomas on the outside with a range of dribble drive scorers. Scoring won't be that much easier but it is different and we might see a different result than in years past.
Then again, nothing ever changes with MSU. It will probably be a loss in Lansing!

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I see Payne as more of a fighter athlete, kind of like a bigger Lenzelle Smith.  Nix, however, is a completely different beast, he's got size and speed.  I think our best bet is going to be with Ravenel on him.  From what I've seen with Williams, he still doesn't know how to use his frame or weight to leverage out the post and he's certainly not aggressive enough or play's with enough fire to stay with Payne.  While I think that we'll be able to deal with Payne, although he always show up against us, I don't think we have an answer for Nix.  I'm thinking that we may have to go zone all game, probably a 2-3 and just try to deny the hell out of the post all game.  Make them beat us shooting the lights out, first one to 50 wins.

Read my entire screen name....

Squirrel Master's picture

I think you might have the answer. Ravs last year gave Nix fits with the pick and pop with Craft. The fact that Ravs CAN hit the 15 ft jumper is how to counter Nix.
Now on offense, Nix will get his. Just gotta hope to contain him and shut out the others. Nix so much reminds me of Paul Millsap in Utah. Not a huge guy but has that all around inside game that does damage to opponents. but maybe not the range. I don't think Izzo has asked him to try shooting on the outside, but maybe he can anyways.

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

O-H-I-Owe-U's picture

I love Lenzelle's effort on D, too, but it seems like he's approaching offense differently this year and not in a good way. It's like he's trying to look like a cool playmaker which has led to a lot of sloppy mistakes and turnovers. 
C'mon Lenzelle.

Goose's picture

Agree with you about his D, but not his offense.  He definitely doesn't look as comfortable as last year and he is definitely pressing a bit, but I feel like that's because he's being asked to do some things that he isn't as capable of doing, not because of any desire to "look cool".

Buckeyevstheworld's picture

I won't be surprised if Craft isn't on the bench with 20 fouls when the game is played in AA.

"YOLO" = I'm about to do something extremely ignorant/stupid & I need an excuse to do it.

TBDBITLinWIScantSON's picture

I find it a little bit funny, that the first picture is from the 2nd 1/2, when Burke had just picked Aaron's pocket....
But Aaron got the better end of the deal that day...just sayin'.
And Burke is, what, 1-3 against the good guys?


RedStorm45's picture

The exceptions to Craft's excellence are Brandon knight in a regional-semi and Jordan Taylor up in Madison in 2011.

OldColumbusTown's picture

To be fair, all Knight did was hit a game-winner in Craft's face.  Otherwise he was non-existent offensively in that game.
The Wisconsin game had two things going against Craft - Taylor was unconscious from outside (and if I remember right, the OSU big men were refusing to hedge on the screen and roll), and the game was in Madison.

Squirrel Master's picture

The fact that we can only think of 2 instances over the course of 2.5 seasons where Craft was less than stellar at defense is pretty much a testiment to how good he is.

I saw a UFO told me to have a goodyear!

Doc's picture

He ain't perfect, but Craft can play him some D.  He is annoying to the opposing team, and that gets guys frustrated into making poor choices.  I'm hoping Slam can get more involved offensively.  He needs to get more rebounds and that will help his game too.

CJDPHoS Member

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