Cody Cousino / Photo editor
INDIANAPOLIS — Aaron Craft doesn’t get beat often.
The Ohio State sophomore guard and Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten has earned a reputation for stifling whoever he’s guarding.
But when the Buckeyes traveled to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan Feb. 18, Wolverine freshman guard and Big Ten co-Freshman of the Year Trey Burke scored Michigan’s final two buckets. The last one, which came with 11 seconds remaining on a drive to the basket that Craft couldn’t cope with, sealed the Michigan win.
Craft’s teammate, sophomore forward Jared Sullinger said OSU’s point guard took the Michigan loss personally.
It showed Saturday as the Buckeyes thrashed Michigan, 77-55, in a Big Ten Tournament semifinal game. Third-seeded OSU advances to play top-seeded Michigan State in Sunday’s championship game.
Burke was held to just five points on 1-of-11 shooting and committed a career-high eight turnovers. Craft was draped all over the Michigan freshman for most of the afternoon. He drew a charge on a fast break in the first half, continually poked the ball away, and harassed Burke, who was coming off a 30-point performance against Minnesota, all night.
“I think you’ve got to give Craft some credit,” said Michigan senior guard Zack Novak. “His on-ball defense was pretty good today.”
Craft wasn’t so eager to take the praise though.
“Stopping a great player like (Burke) especially with how he was feeling in the game yesterday, it was definitely a team effort tonight,” Craft said. “Just trying not to make it about me against him because that’s not what it’s about.”
But Sullinger said Craft’s defensive performance was special.
The Buckeyes’ big man and Burke both went to Northland High School and have been playing with each other since grade school. In all of that time, Sullinger said Burke was never as bothered as he was Saturday.
“Never,” Sullinger said. “I’ve never seen him that frustrated. I’ve never seen him have this many turnovers. I’ve never seen him shoot this poorly. I’ve never seen that happen and I think Craft frustrated him. You got to give most of the credit to Craft.”
Burke wasn’t the only Wolverine to struggle either.
As a team, the Wolverines shot just 31 percent from the field, and their 55-point output was more than 11 points below their season average.
After the game, the Buckeyes were adamant that the defense was a complete team effort.
“Team defense is the biggest thing,” Sullinger said. “Whoever has the best defense that night is going to win the game. We could care less about offense. As long as we keep defending our butts off on the defensive end, we’re fine.”
Sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said that team defense mentality was apparent. He said his defense on sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. who is Michigan’s second-leading scorer, allowed Craft to avoid helping off of Burke, and the Buckeye big men hedging off of screens eliminated the penetration into the key.
“My team came to me before the game started and they said it was going to start with me and I had a big job to do and I had to stop Tim Hardaway,” Smith Jr. said. “I pretty much got off to that in an early start and that helps Aaron. He doesn’t have to help off of his guy as much, which frustrated Trey Burke today. It made him have to force a lot.”
Hardaway Jr. made just three of 10 shots from the floor and totaled 13 points.
OSU coach Thad Matta agreed with Smith Jr.
“This game was definitely was about our defense. We had great activity on the ball and off the ball,” Matta said. “I thought we had great communication challenging shots.”
And when OSU defends like that, Michigan coach John Beilein said OSU is as good of a team as he’s ever seen.
“I’ve seen some really good teams, this being I think my 20th year as a Division I coach, and played some really good games,” Beilein said. “That’s as good of a game as I’ve ever seen a college team play. Talking about Ohio obviously.”
The championship game between OSU and MSU tips at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.