BOSTON – Aaron Craft, meet the back court of Syracuse men’s basketball.
Craft, the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s sophomore guard, could face the toughest challenge of his career Saturday when the No. 2-seeded Buckeyes (30-7) face No. 1-seeded Syracuse (34-2) at TD Garden in Boston with a berth to the Final Four on the line.
Craft, the Big Ten’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, has been hailed as the best on-ball defender in the country, but Saturday’s game will see him go up against a trio of Syracuse guards that Orange coach Jim Boeheim calls the best in the country.
Heading the Orange’s offensive attack is senior Scoop Jardine, a second-team All-Big East selection who is averages nearly nine points and five assists per game. Fellow starter, junior Brandon Triche, averages nine points per game as well.
Former Duke guard and current OSU video coordinator Greg Paulus said that Jardine and Triche would be hard for Craft to handle.
“I think those guys are really good players,” Paulus said. “Offensively, they’re strong – shifty with the basketball. The can do it inside with the mid-range game. They can go out and hit the three from behind the ball screen – it’s going to be a very difficult matchup.”
When either Jardine or Triche need a break, sophomore guard Dion Waiters – recipient of the Big East’s 6th Man of the Year award – comes off the bench for the Orange. Waiters averages nearly 13 points per game for Syracuse.
After OSU’s Thursday win against No. 6-seeded Cincinnati, Craft sighed at the mention of Syracuse’s guards.
Craft said he’s well aware of the threat his opposition poses in Saturday game.
“It’s going to be tough, you know. It’s definitely not going to be just me,” Craft said. “I mean, those guys are great players, and they bring great players off the bench. So, it’s going to be a big personnel game. Just understanding what they like to do, what they don’t like to do and try to stay as connected as possible.”
In the Syracuse camp, Craft is held in high regard as well, and with good reason – he contributed 11 second-half points against the Bearcats to go along with five assists and six steals to help lead OSU to its 81-66 win Thursday.
Triche said Craft, who averages nearly nine points, five assists and three rebounds per game for OSU, is a guy that’s “always up on you.”
“He pretty much just makes it tough,” Triche said. “He’s one of those guys that never gives up. He’s one of those guys who helps others, dives on the floor.”
So, how will this collision of talent at the guard position shake out Saturday? OSU assistant coach Jeff Boals said he is confident in Craft.
“Aaron is a huge force on both ends of the court,” Boals said. “It’ll be a good challenge for him.”
Craft said he’ll need to rely on his teammates for help in the game to guard Syracuse’s guards, which totaled 39 points in the Orange’s 64-63 win against No. 4-seeded Wisconsin to advance to the NCAA Tournament’s round of eight teams.
While he isn’t going to emphasize the one-on-one match ups, Craft also said he would need to keep the Syracuse guards in front of him.
“All three of them have shown that they can take over a game when they need to,” Craft said. “It’s going to be all five of us trying to stop all five of them, and hopefully we can do something.”
Paulus agreed with Boals and said he is confident in OSU’s guard.
“I know (Craft) is the best defender in college basketball,” he said. “I know he’ll be up to the challenge.”
OSU’s game against Syracuse at TD Garden in Boston will tip at 7:05 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS.