Craft to Play Important Role Against Florida’s Press
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — At one point in time, Aaron Craft was supposed to be playing in the SEC. On Tuesday, the Ohio State freshman will get a chance to play in one the rowdier environments in the conference as the 4th-ranked Buckeyes (1-0) travel to Gainesville for a top-10 matchup with No. 9 Florida (1-0).
Photo by Jim Davidson
The Gators forced 20 turnovers—including 11 steals—in their 77-60 win over UNC Wilmington, which is why Craft could be asked to play significant minutes in the first road game of his career (6 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“This will be a great test,” OSU Head Coach Thad Matta said Monday before the team boarded their plane.
“They’re a very experienced team with everybody back, (and we’re) going on the road with six news guys. On November 16th, you’re looking at a Big Ten-type of game, which will be good for them.”
In two games (including an exhibition), Craft has 20 points, 17 assists and three steals. More importantly, the rookie point guard has yet to turn the ball over, for which Matta said he felt Craft may deserve more playing time.
“Yeah, I do. How much Aaron’s going to play? I’m presuming quite a bit,” Matta said.
“The things we need from him to help our team, I think he’s done a tremendous job of really embracing his role.”
Though he came off the bench in both the exhibition game against Walsh and season-opening win over North Carolina A&T, Craft has been a key component at both ends of the floor for Ohio State. He has played 48 minutes in two games (including the exhibition) and that number could actually go up against a Florida team that loves to press out across the half-court line.
The Buckeyes struggled a bit against the ¾-court press of North Carolina A&T after Craft went to the bench with two fouls in the first half. In their effort to get the ball up the court quickly, veterans William Buford and David Lighty made some errant passes that resulted in turnovers and Matta quickly brought Craft back onto the floor despite the fouls.
“There were a lot of possessions in the game. It was up tempo and I remember coach telling us there were a lot of times we might have had lazy passes,” senior Jon Diebler said.
“We know going up against Florida, they’ve got a lot of length. We can’t have lazy passes because with their speed they’ll be able to pick those off.”
In both of their games, the Buckeyes have started a “big” lineup with Dallas Lauderdale and Jared Sullinger in the frontcourt, Diebler on the wing and Buford and Lighty in the backcourt. Matta said he will likely stick with that starting lineup against the Gators despite the fact they feature a backcourt with two small, quick guards in Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker.
Boynton, who led the Gators in scoring last season as a freshman, is 6-foot-2 and Walker, the point guard, is 5-foot-8. The Buckeyes are coming off a game in which they had some issues against dribble penetration from smaller guards.
“We probably got a little bit too extended the other night,” Matta said.
“We weren’t as smart as we needed to be defensively.”
That may be where Craft is most needed. He may not have the length of an Evan Turner or the pure speed of a Mike Conley Jr., but Craft already looks like a better on-ball defender.
“He can definitely move laterally, keep the ball in front of him,” Matta said of the Findlay native.
“And offensively, he’s making great decisions.”
That was against Walsh and North Carolina A&T, but Tuesday’s matchup will be a tremendous step up for Craft and the rest of the Buckeyes. The Gators were 21-13 last season, including a 99-92 overtime loss to BYU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They return the bulk of their team from a year ago, including forwards Chandler Parsons (their best outside shooter) and Alex Tyus (a former Ohio State target).
They will also be aided by a rowdy environment at the O’Connell Center, where they were 14-4 last season including a 75-62 win over Tennessee, the team that knocked Ohio State out of the tournament in the Sweet 16.
“I really didn’t know what to expect going down there my first time,” said fifth-year senior David Lighty, who played in Gainesville as a freshman in 2006.
“When you get down there, it’s kind of unreal the support they have from all their fans.”
For Craft and the other five freshmen, it will be a shock to the system. Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas have played in some national TV games, but none of the newcomers have played on the road in a hostile environment.
The Buckeyes aren’t worried, however, about putting the ball in the hands of an 18-yeard old kid playing in his first collegiate road game.
“Aaron’s a kid where he’s so mature for his age, he’s a guy you really don’t have to worry about,” said Diebler, who has known Craft since he was in third grade.
“He got knocked down in practice the other day and coach was like, ‘you can’t hurt Craft.’ He’s a tough kid and you see how he plays, he’s tough. Mentally, he’s going to prepare the same way.”
That’s why it will be hard for Matta to take him off the floor, regardless of age.
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