Ohio State's Aaron Craft might be one of the most respected and recognized college basketball players ever with a career scoring average of under 10 points per game (currently 8.7 PPG over 115 games).
In a sports era when the media and fans focus mostly on individuals who are high-volume scorers, Craft is unique in how he has earned his celebrated status.
The Buckeye's senior point guard has carved out a place for himself in collegiate hoops history by being a fantastic floor leader, a dominant on-ball defender and a prolific pickpocket.
Craft's individual awards include: 2011 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and 2013 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player.
Going into this season, the OSU teams that he has led have been highly successful:
|2010-11||34-3||16-2||NCAA Sweet 16|
|2011-12||31-8||13-5||NCAA Final Four|
|2012-13||29-7||13-5||NCAA Elite Eight|
Even with the success that Craft has had in his first three years in Columbus, the questions still remain: Can Aaron Craft win an NCAA championship before he graduates this coming spring? What are his title chances in 2013-14?
At first glance, this is a ridiculous thought.
With teams like Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, Duke, Arizona and Kansas at the top of the polls, how could anyone even think that Ohio State could have a prayer to win it all in North Texas in the first week in April?
I wholeheartedly agree with that statement.
At the same time, I also do not rule out the possibility of a player like Craft marshaling his teammates and leading them through a spectacular season and an anything-can-happen-March Madness run that culminates in an NCAA title.
After all, they are starting off this season ranked No. 11 in the AP Poll.
Almost every year, teams make the Final Four that were not even ranked at the beginning of the season. Wichita State is the most recent example of a team getting to the national semifinals without being ranked when the season opened in November.
For this to be possible, Craft must bring his team together around three absolutes:
1. Suffocating Individual Defense
Craft is as qualified as any current collegiate player to lead by example when it comes to applying individual defensive pressure.
ESPN's Jay Bilas does not hesitate to name Craft as the best lockdown defender in the nation. He says (Insider subscription required):
Nobody moves his feet, establishes pressure and then resumes pressure better than Craft. He is the best on-ball defender in the country, bar none.
Rather than the rest of the Buckeyes sitting back and being impressed by Craft's defensive intensity, they need to imitate it.
If Matta continues to start the same unit (Craft, Shannon Scott, Lenzelle Smith Jr., LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams) that he ran out in their first two games, he will have a lineup of high-impact athletes capable of smothering even the most talented of opponents.
2. Opportunistic Team Defense
Along with Craft showing the way in terms of individual defense, he can teach the class on how to create turnovers as a team.
With this entire season ahead of him, Craft is already Ohio State's career steals leader (248), surpassing Jay Burson's mark (204) in the middle of last season.
He doesn't need to do much tutoring with his backcourt running mate Shannon Scott. The 6'1" junior nabbed 63 steals last year while averaging only 20 minutes per game.
Though Amir Williams is the team's designated rim protector, keep your eye on Sam Thompson off the bench. Regardless of whether he starts, Thompson could have a breakout season at both ends of the court.
3. Balanced Scoring
Last year, Ohio State only had two players who averaged double figures in scoring: Deshaun Thomas (19.8) and Aaron Craft (10.0).
Because of this, the OSU offensive game plan was a little simplistic and predictable.
Some might think that it is Craft's responsibility to greatly increase his scoring output and take on the lead-scorer mantle. Instead, the Buckeyes will do better by fully utilizing all of their offensive weapons to create a balanced attack similar to their 2010-11 team. That squad had four double-figure scorers (Sullinger, William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty).
Before anyone comes unglued, I am not suggesting that the 2013-14 team has anywhere close to the beyond-the-arc capabilities of the 2010-11 team. But, this year's unit could feasibly have four or even five players who average double figures in points.
It takes great floor leadership to spread around the wealth and keep everyone happy.
This, again, is where Craft's strengths will shine.
He can and will distribute touches effectively to see that everyone gets the ball in a position to score, making it a brutal challenge for an opposing defense to know where to focus its effort.
How far will Ohio State go in the 2014 NCAA Tournament?
In the 1999-2000 season, Michigan State was a team that did not have a superstar scorer that they depended on to carry them to a championship.
Instead, that NCAA title story started with an outstanding floor general in Mateen Cleaves. He led a Spartans team that used tough defense and balanced scoring to win fifteen of its last 16 games on the way to winning it all in Indianapolis.
This year, Ohio State's success is not reliant on a single stud scorer. The Buckeyes will rise or fall on great leadership, gritty defense and an all-hands-on-deck scoring strategy.
And Aaron Craft is the kind of player who can will his team to perform at a championship level.