Crafted defense leads Buckeyes

BOSTON -- Greg Paulus knows a thing or two about good point guards.

For four years he played the part of one at Duke University.

From his catbird seat on the Ohio State bench, though, Paulus is pretty sure he’s watching something special in the person of Aaron Craft, particularly when it comes to an on-the-ball defender.

“He’s the best I’ve ever seen,’’ said Paulus, now the Buckeyes’ video coordinator. “I know Tom Izzo said after our game that he’s never seen anyone like him, and he’s coached a few games.’’

Craft did not lead the Buckeyes in scoring against Cincinnati. In fact, he had a pretty dismal shooting night, connecting on just 2 of 7 shots and missing his first five.

Yet no one in an Ohio State uniform was more critical than Craft on Thursday. It was his quick hands and blanket defense, evident in his six steals, that all but erased Cincinnati’s short-lived lead and helped the Buckeyes over their Sweet 16 hump with an 81-66 win.

Ohio State will face Syracuse on Saturday. The Buckeyes, with the power duo of DeShaun Thomas (26 points and seven rebounds) and Jared Sullinger (23 and 11), advanced to their first Elite Eight since 2007.

“You have to want to play defense,’’ said Lenzelle Smith, Craft’s backcourt cohort. “Me and Aaron, that’s what we do. We aren’t afraid to yell at our guys, slap them around a little bit and they feed off that energy.’’

That wasn’t always the case. Craft admitted earlier this season there was more infighting among the Buckeyes than in a "Real Housewives" episode.

A blown assignment or a bad pass would inevitably lead to finger-pointing and you-a culpas, never a mea culpa.

No one was terribly interested in taking the blame or the heat, and amid all of the bad chemistry, Ohio State slid off course.

Losing can make or break a team. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, it was the former, the lousy results serving as a needed eye opener to what it takes to win and win consistently.

The hardest sell, always is defense. It is a choice for some, a chore for most.

Except for Craft. He finds art in what most people consider misery. His face is almost like a defensive thermometer -- the redder the blush in his cheeks, the harder he’s working and the more suffering the opponent is doing.

Most folks looked at this game against Cincinnati and concentrated on the inside, and certainly that’s where the Buckeyes had and exploited their advantage.

Equally critical, though, was the flip side. The Bearcats start four quick guards, every one able to get to the hoop off the bounce or shoot from 3.

“What we wanted to do was be in position and force them to make quick decisions,’’ Thad Matta said. “We told each other, 'Just be sound, just be in the right spots at the right time. They’re going to make shots. They’re a high-powered offensive team. They’ve got plenty of guys who can score.' That was where our minds were -- just positioning, faking, staying.’’

In all, the Bearcats coughed up the ball a crucial 18 times, seven more than their average.

Never were those mistakes more costly for Cincinnati, trying to make its first Elite Eight since 1996, than at the midpoint of the second half. Switching from zone to man-to-man, the Bearcats confused and rattled Ohio State enough to take a 52-48 lead on a Yancy Gates and-1 play.

With the Cincinnati half of the all Ohio crowd on its feet, the Bearcats had seized momentum from a team that has felt the squeeze of this particular game.

Cincinnati should have frozen the scoreboard at that moment. The next time they scored, Ohio State had dashed out on a 17-1 run to not only retake the lead, but take the game over.

And the Buckeyes did it with defense. Cincinnati committed five turnovers in that critical span, with Craft forcing three of them. The miscues led out to runouts and buckets for Ohio State, including the dagger 3-pointer from Craft, that made it 61-53.

“We weren’t making the right plays, we weren’t making the right pass,’’ Cashmere Wright said. "We were over dribbling the ball, doing things uncharacteristic of our team.’’

And Craft was playing his part without fault.

The box score says the point guard played just 39 minutes, 60 seconds shy of a yeoman’s load.

What the box score doesn’t reveal is that Craft came out only when the game was in hand and Matta wanted to get his point guard an ovation.

When the buzzer finally sounded, Matta turned, a wide grin spreading across his face and pumped fists with his point guard.

Craft smiled back before putting his game mask back on. As he walked to shake hands with the Bearcats, he emphatically raised his finger, catching William Buford in the eye.

He wasn’t labeling his team No. 1.

No, like a good point guard, Craft was reminding Buford what was next: one more game, one more win to get to the Final Four.

“He can make such an impact in the game in so many different ways,’’ Paulus said of Craft. “But the best thing about him? All he wants to do is win.’’