Matta Standing By Craft as B1G’s Best Defensive Player
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio —Thad Matta shared some high opinions of Victor Oladipo on Wednesday. None of them caused even the slightest hesitation from the Ohio State basketball coach when christening the top defensive performer in the Big Ten this season.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I think Victor Oladipo is a tremendous, outstanding, awesome defender. One of the best I’ve ever seen,” Matta said.
“But Aaron Craft is in a whole other world when it comes to defense.”
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten was snubbed on Monday, if we want to call it that, in favor of Indiana’s star senior. With the conference’s player of the year award going to Michigan’s Trey Burke, the Big Ten coaches decided to reward Oladipo with the top defensive honor.
Craft, along with Oladipo, was named unanimously to the Big Ten’s all-defensive team. They were joined by Craft’s Ohio State teammate Shannon Scott, along with Wisconsin big man Jared Berggren and Michigan center Jordan Morgan.
It was a nice honor for Craft, who took home the defensive player of the year award as a sophomore last season, but Matta was “amazed” his star point guard did not repeat the honor this season.
“I’ve been in this league for nine years and I’ve never seen a guy make an impact on a basketball team like he does on the defensive end,” Matta said passionately.
“How many five-second counts has Aaron Craft gotten this year by himself, man-on-man, with 80 feet to get away from him? And they can’t get away. That was the only one that shocked me a little bit.”
Craft was selected as a first-team All-Big Ten performer by the media, but the coaches decided Michigan junior Tim Hardaway was more impactful this season for the Wolverines, who ended up fifth in the conference standings.
That didn’t faze Craft, known as a consummate team player and the ultimate good sport. Neither did losing his title as the Big Ten’s top defender to a guy in Oladipo who undoubtedly was right there with Craft as the top defensive player in the Big Ten this season.
“He did a great job of coming out and having a great year. I don’t think it’s a knock on me, it’s just a testament to what he was able to do,” Craft said with a humility that should surprise no one.
“He did a lot, he was that guy you always had to worry about on the defensive end. You have to give him a lot of credit. He did what he needed to do, and obviously they won the Big Ten championship so you have to give him the edge.”
The Buckeyes finished second in the conference standings, snapping a three-year streak of either tying for the regular season championship or winning it outright. At 13-5, Matta’s team finished with the same record in B1G play this year as it did with Jared Sullinger and William Buford a year ago.
According to Matta, that is a testament to what Craft really means to these Ohio State Buckeyes.
“This basketball team would not be anywhere where it is without the impact he makes on the defensive end,” Matta added.
“Maybe I’m biased, but I know you have to game plan for him as an opposing team. You have to be aware of where he is when you’re running your offense. I just love the kid.”
From Beilein to Izzo to Krzyzewski, Matta is not alone in his admiration, but the OSU coach still doesn’t feel like his guy gets the recognition he deserves.
“I’m not a real good guy to ask, because I would have taken Dave Lighty a couple years ago,” Matta said Wednesday.
“Aaron Craft should be the national defender of the year. I don’t even care about the Big Ten; he should be the national defender of the year. I said the same thing about David Lighty, but people see different things.”
Lighty missed out the award when it went to JaJuan Johnson. The Purdue big man also topped Sullinger for Player of the Year in the Big Ten two years ago, but there is not a whole lot separating the years Craft and Oladipo put together this season.
With 69 steals during the regular season, Oladipo (2.2) actually topped Craft (2.0) for most thefts in the Big Ten. He also averaged more points (13.7) and rebounds (6.2) than Craft, who finished second in the Big Ten in assists at 4.5 per game.
Oladipo only blocked 26 shots all year (compared to 63 for Berggren and 41 for OSU center Amir Williams), but that was 20 more than Craft, who is also 3-4 inches shorter than his IU counterpart.
Few players had more defensive highlights this year than Oladipo, who locked down the conference’s player of the year on the final day of the regular season to help Indiana to its first outright Big Ten title in 20 years.
But it’s not all about flash, says Matta.
“Aaron doesn’t fly through the air and pin shots off the glass,” he said, “he takes (the ball) from the guy’s hands when he’s on the floor.”
With 60 steals in 30 games this season, Craft became Ohio State’s all-time leader with 231 career thefts. He is only the second Buckeye ever with 200 or more steals in his career, and he is just eight assists away from becoming the third Buckeye in history to reach 500 career helpers.
He is currently seventh in Big Ten history in steals, and could crack the top three with another solid showing as a senior next season.
“Once again, Victor Oladipo is off the charts, but I think Aaron is the best,” Matta said.
“That’s my bias. I’m not knocking anyone in the Big Ten, but I have such affection for that kid.”
Especially because his opponents don’t often feel the same way.
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