Ohio State is the stingiest defense in college basketball for two reasons: Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott. These two raw-meat-eating guards are leading the way on "the other end of the court" in a time when most teams are struggling with the recent rule changes (h/t Kerry Miller).
With Craft and Scott's help, head coach Thad Matta does not accept the fact that refs blowing their whistles has done away with defense. He also rejects the thought that this puts an end to pressuring your opponent.
Before the season started, Matta told Yahoo's Pat Forde how he thought the rule changes would effect Craft:
Thad Matta, on Aaron Craft and tighter calls: "I don't think it's going to affect him. It's going to affect the bad defenders."— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) October 31, 2013
The Buckeyes are bucking the early trend in the 2013-14 season for teams to play zone more. The Wall Street Journal's Ben Cohen stated recently:
College teams are playing zone on 21.6% of possessions thus far, up from 15.6% last year and the previous four years' average of 17.6%, according to Synergy Sports Technology. The first month of this season also hints that the zone may factor into NCAA tournament upsets come March: Top-25 teams are staring down zones on 23.8% of their half-court sets.
Though Craft is thought by many to be the best on-ball defender in college hoops, Scott is no slouch. The son of North Carolina and NBA star Charlie Scott combines great physical tools and exceptional instincts to control opposing ball-handlers and interfere with passing lanes. Both guards are averaging over two steals per game (Craft—2.6 SPG; Scott—2.3). Scott holds a slight advantage when you consider that he plays six minutes less per outing.
But these backcourt beasts are more than skilled pickpockets. They have the whole defensive package. They prevent opponents from calmly getting into their half-court sets. They fight through picks, bring fierce off-the-ball pressure and battle on the boards.
Craft and Scott are the catalysts to Ohio State's top-rated suffocating defense. Without them, they would not be No. 1 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (86.7) and three-point defense (22.5 percent), No. 2 in effective defensive field-goal percentage (39.4 percent) and No. 5 in defensive turnover percentage (25.5 percentage—h/t Kenpom.com).
Other guard combinations deserve recognition for their stellar performance in other parts of the game:
Most versatile: UConn's Shabazz Napier (15.3 PPG) and Ryan Boatright (12 PPG). The Huskies' dynamic duo are virtually interchangeable. They both can run the point, take the ball to the hole or hit shots from beyond the arc (Napier—57.1 percent; Boatright—45.5 percent). Together, they hand out 10.1 assists per game.
Most dominating: Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart (19.7 PPG) and Markel Brown (16.2 PPG) are a hard pair to contain. They are both exceptional open-court scorers who can also find teammates and deliver the ball to them so they can put it in the hole.
Most dangerous if they could stay healthy: Michigan State's Keith Appling (16.4 PPG) and Gary Harris (17.6 PPG) are already one of the best guard pairs in the nation. Just think how much better they would be if they could actually stay healthy for the entire season. Appling is playing hurt and Harris has already missed two games because of an ankle injury suffered this past summer.
Are Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott the best backcourt defensive duo in college basketball?
Looking ahead: With Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott wreaking havoc from their guard positions, Ohio State should be the favorite to win the Big Ten and head into March Madness with a full head of steam.
Because they play nasty defense and lead a balanced offensive attack, Craft and Scott could be the reason the Buckeyes ride their defensive excellence all the way to the Final Four in North Texas.