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Syracuse takes on Ohio State in Elite Eight on TSN2

Associated Press

3/24/2012 1:28:13 PM

Aaron Craft doesn't get as much publicity as some of his Ohio State teammates.

Jared Sullinger is the star. Deshaun Thomas is the shooter.

But Craft is the stopper, the pesky defender who irritates dribblers and takes the ball away.

"He takes great pride in what he's doing every single possession," Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said Friday. "That's why I've said it all year. He's the best defender in college basketball."

On Saturday night, Craft will be pestering Syracuse guards Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters in the East regional final as the second-seeded Buckeyes try to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2007 when they lost the championship game to Florida.

"He's just one of those guys who's always up on you," Triche said. "He's good with his hands. He gets into the passing lane. He pretty much just makes it tough, sliding left and right. He's one of those guys who never gives up."

Craft tied his season high of six steals in Thursday night's 81-66 win over sixth-seeded Cincinnati. And three came after the Bearcats overcame a 37-25 halftime deficit to take a 52-48 lead.

That increased his school single-season record to 94 steals. As a freshman last season, his 73 were fourth most in Ohio State history. And with 167 in just two years, he's only 37 shy of the record set by Jay Burson from 1986-89.

Craft traces his defensive focus to being the son of a high school coach and playing against older brothers.

"We would play one-on-one," he said. "I couldn't score too much because I was a lot smaller, but I could frustrate him if I was playing defence. That kind of is what I hung my hat on, and it carried over, and it's something I enjoy doing. I take great pride in it."

The 6-foot-2 Craft spreads his arms wide in front of ballhandlers trying to get by him. He slides his feet quickly to cut off their path. And he pokes at the ball to take it away.

In the first half against Cincinnati, he missed all three of his shots. But he made two of four in the second half and finished with 11 points.

One of his greatest assets, though, is his determination to defend. That's why some opponents hate to play against him.

"I hope so," Craft said. "That's what a goal of a good defensive player is, just to try to take another player out of his rhythm and hopefully he doesn't feel as comfortable as he does in other games."

He also sets up his own teammates. He had five assists against Cincinnati and holds the school record for a single game with 15 against George Mason in last year's NCAA tournament. On Thursday night, two of those assists came on baskets by Thomas, who led the Buckeyes with 26 points.

Ohio State reached the regional semifinals with a 73-66 win over Gonzaga in which Craft had a season-high 10 assists and tied his best point total for the season with 17. It was the first double-double of his career.

But he knew when he arrived at Ohio State that the best way to get playing time would be with his defence.

"I think he kind of assessed the situation that he was walking into and said, 'what do I have to do to help this basketball team win?' " Matta said. "He chose and said, 'I'm going to defend and I'm going to take care of the basketball, and I think I'll have an opportunity to play.' "

Craft started just one of 37 games last season but averaged 29.6 minutes per game. He's started every game this year and averaged 31.7 minutes after playing all but one minute against Cincinnati.

He could be on the floor for the entire game on Saturday night.

So how do Syracuse's athletic guards match up with Craft?

"We'll find out," Orange coach Jim Boeheim said. "I don't give scouting reports."