Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
The anxiety level on the court seems to heighten. If the opposing team’s players weren’t in fear of the defense in front of them before, they almost surely are now.
This is what happens when Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott play together, two quick defensive-minded guards that give ball handlers more trouble than they usually can manage.
It’s been occurring more often lately, too, and it’s a major reason for Ohio State’s surge into the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes, a No. 2 seed in the West Region, take on No. 15 seed Iona Friday in Dayton.
Last season, it was the combination of two-time all-American Jared Sullinger and then-sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas that OSU rode to the Final Four. This March, the Buckeyes most potent duo might be that of Craft, a junior guard, and Scott, a sophomore. They don’t score or rebound at the rate Sullinger and Thomas did; their effect on the game comes largely on the opposite end of the floor.
During OSU’s three-game run to the Big Ten Tournament title in Chicago last weekend, Craft and Scott combined for 13 steals. In the Buckeyes’ two biggest wins down the stretch in the regular season, Michigan State on Feb. 24 and at Indiana on March 5, Craft and Scott totaled 11 steals.
“We held a lot of teams to less points than they usually have. The defense we played was great for us,” Scott said.
Craft has been, OSU coach Thad Matta said, the best defender in the country, “no question,” for the past two seasons. Scott’s ascension to defensive lore has taken some time to develop.
“I think he has grown into it,” Matta said. “I think in essence what changed was his mentality. I give Shannon a ton of credit, being perceptive enough to understand what (he) has to do to help this basketball team.”
Before Scott arrived in Columbus for his freshman season in 2011, he was hardly the defensive presence he is now.
“He and I joke, ‘You didn’t have to play very hard in high school, did you?’ I joked with him, ‘How many charges did you take?’ He said, ‘I’ve never taken a charge,'” Matta said.
One of Matta’s biggest selling points to Scott during the Georgia native’s recruitment was that he would get to play against Craft every day in practice. Now, they’ve been going head-to-head for nearly two years. It’s made them both better players.
“I can pressure him, he can pressure me, and it kind of pushes us that way,” Craft said.
“It’s made both of them better players,” Matta said. “You look at the growth of both guys, when Shannon got here, I said if you go against him every day, there’s no one in college basketball that can guard like him.”
The two play at such a high level in practice, OSU’s coaching staff has to bottle them up at times.
“The thing we have to watch at times is those two take such a beating with all the ball screens. We have to give them a break every time we can,” Matta said.
Of the duo, Craft gets most of the credit. He’s the one on the cover of all the magazines, the one fans swoon over. But this season, Scott has been just as good, if not better, statistically, when it comes to defense.
Scott has the best defensive rating of any player in the Big Ten, a statistic used to measure a player’s capability to prevent the other team from scoring. He was third in the conference in steals behind Craft, despite playing 13 minutes less per game. Scott led the conference in steal percentage, taking the ball away on 5.7 percent of an opposing team’s possessions while on the floor.
Craft said Scott makes himself unforgettable while playing defense.
“He’s very pesky. He does a really good job of not quitting on plays,” Craft said of his counterpart. “Even if you get by him, or you think he’s set by a screen, he’s right by you right away. You really have to be careful with the ball. You just can’t forget about him.”
Craft’s no slouch, either, checking in at second in the Big Ten in steals per game and fourth in steal percentage.
The two have benefited offensively by playing together as well. When they are on the floor together, Craft slides off the ball with Scott taking the point. This allows Scott to push the ball in transition and Craft to focus more on scoring.
“You see things a little differently,” Craft said of playing with Scott on offense. “You don’t have to worry about taking care of the ball as much. You can sit back and read the defense a little more. It’s just really helped out as a whole.”
The duo has been a critical aspect of OSU’s “small” lineup that also features Thomas and sophomore forwards LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson. That quintet was on the floor in the closing minutes of the Buckeyes’ game against Wisconsin Sunday, in which OSU won its fourth Big Ten Tournament championship, 50-43.
“It really helps us space the floor out … with LaQuinton and Deshaun’s ability to guard multiple positions, it gives us a lot of mismatches on the offensive end,” Craft said. He and Scott will be pushed Friday. The Gaels are the second in the country in scoring at 80.7 points per contest. Iona senior guard Lamont “Momo” Jones averages 23.0 points per game. Jones’ running mate, junior guard Sean Armand, pours in 16.6.
“They have a couple guys on their team that really like to score the ball,” Craft said. “They can really get out and score the ball in a variety of ways. It’s going to be a big team defensive effort this week and that’s what we’re trying to work on.”
With Craft and Scott at the helm of OSU’s defensive attack, the Gaels likely have a lot to prepare for, too.
OSU and Iona are set to tip off at the University of Dayton Arena at 7:15 p.m. Friday. If OSU wins, it will play the winner of the game between No. 7 seed Notre Dame and No. 10 seed Iowa State Sunday.