August 29, 2014

Medina
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The defenders: Buckeyes’ Craft, ’Cats’ Johnson would rather shut down foes than put up big numbers

Most kids who have big dreams picture themselves hitting the winning shot in the big game, doing an imaginary countdown before hoisting toward the backyard basket.

Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, above, knocks the ball away from Michigan’s Trey Burke. (AP photos.)

Ohio State guard Aaron Craft’s countdown had an alternative slant.

“I think we know I’m a defensive guy,” Craft said after his last-second shot against Iowa State sent the Buckeyes to the West Region semifinals. “So I think I’m in the backyard (saying) three, two, one, taking a charge, something like that.”

College basketball has few true defensive stoppers, players who can alter a game without scoring a point.

The opening West Region semifinal at Staples Center on Thursday night will have two: Craft and Arizona’s Nick Johnson.

Athletic, active guards, Craft and Johnson have been disruptive forces all season, tasked with slowing the opposing team’s best perimeter players — and doing just that more often than not.

They are the main cogs to their teams’ defensive success and thrive on it.

“I take that personally, knowing that I’m the main defensive guy and my energy really affects the team,” Johnson said. “I’m taking it personally upon myself to do it every single game and show my team I’m playing really, really hard. It’s contagious.”

Arizona’s Nick Johnson doesn’t give Arizona State’s Jahil Carson much room to maneuver.

The nephew of late Boston Celtics guard Dennis Johnson — another player noted for his defensive prowess — Johnson arrived in Tucson as a rare high school prospect who enjoyed playing defense.

He’s lived up to that reputation in two years at Arizona, becoming the defensive engine for the Wildcats this season as a sophomore.

A freakishly athletic 6-foot-3, Johnson has exceptional lateral quickness and springy legs that allow him to soar in for blocks when opposing players least expect it. San Diego State’s Chase Tapley found that out in the championship game of the Diamondhead Classic, when Johnson swatted away what appeared to be an uncontested layup at the buzzer to secure the Wildcats’ title on Christmas night.

After a midseason funk, Johnson has come alive again at the end of the season, starting with a strong performance against Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson in the regular-season finale.

Johnson then hounded Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, limiting the Buffaloes’ leading scorer to 4-of-12 shooting, and had an emphatic block on a 3-point attempt by Askia Booker in the closing seconds.

Though the Wildcats lost to UCLA in the Pac-12 semifinals, Johnson took Bruins point guard Larry Drew II almost entirely out of the game, helping to force him to miss all five of his shots in a scoreless night.

In the NCAA Tournament, Johnson had the primary assignment on Belmont’s Ian Clark in Arizona’s opening game and helped hold the nation’s best 3-point shooter (46 percent) to 3-of-8 shooting from the arc and made him work hard for his 21 points.

Against Harvard, Johnson held the Crimson’s leading scorer to eight points on 1-of-11 shooting in Arizona’s runaway into the Sweet 16.

“With Nick Johnson, he has become our team’s best perimeter defender,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He has all the athletic talent. He has the mindset to be great. I believe one day he will be an elite defender.”

Craft may already be there.

The Big Ten defensive player of the year last season, he was the catalyst to the Buckeyes’ run to the Final Four in New Orleans.

Even though he was edged by Indiana’s Victor Oladipo as the conference’s defensive player of the year this season, Craft may have been even better on the defensive end than he was a year ago.

“I think Victor Oladipo is a tremendous, outstanding, awesome defender, one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “But Aaron Craft is in another whole other world when it comes to defense. This basketball team would not be anywhere near where it is without the impact he makes on the defensive end.”

While Johnson does some of his best work in the air, Craft is a more low-flying craft.

With roadrunner-quick feet and a crouch like a big cat ready to pounce, Craft is nearly impossible to get around off the dribble. He has quick hands and great anticipation to go with it, snatching the ball from ballhandlers while they’re dribbling or jumping off his man into passing lanes for steals.

Craft became Ohio State’s career steals leader (245) this season while averaging 2.1 per game, and forced nearly as many 5-second calls against the man he was guarding.

And, like Johnson, Craft has a well-rounded game, able to hit big shots — that 3-pointer against Iowa State a prime example — and understand the game better than most players.

“He’s a 4.0 student, an incredible leader and as good of a competitor as you’ll find,” Miller said. “He puts a lot of emphasis and plays hard on defense, but he’s also talented there. There are a lot of guys who play hard, but they’re limited. He has exceptional quickness and quick hands and he is strong. His anticipates really well.”

He and Johnson have certainly added to the anticipation for Thursday night’s game.

Next up

  • WHO: No. 7 Ohio State (28-7) vs. No. 21 Arizona (27-7)
  • WHAT: West Regional semifinal
  • WHEN: Thursday, 7:47 p.m.
  • WHERE: Staple Center, Los Angeles
  • TV/RADIO: TBS; WEOL 930-AM, WKNR 850-AM