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College Basketball

Buckeyes-Badgers Big Ten final exemplifies greatness of March

CHICAGO -- Michigan State point guard Keith Appling had a rough afternoon Saturday, but you would stumble around, too, if you had a man inside your head.

Appling should have charged Aaron Craft rent. It was ridiculous. Craft finished with 20 points (on 13 shots), nine assists and four steals, and Appling shot 6-for-17, and these two stat lines were so obviously related. Michigan State wore special green and gold Nike uniforms for the game. Appling's came with puppet strings.

"Mentally and physically, (Craft) controls the game," Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals said after the Buckeyes' 61-58 win.

The remarkable thing is that Keith Appling is a really good player. He is more athletic than Craft. On Friday, he threw down one of the best dunks of the season, against Iowa. Appling is an outstanding defender, and he can get to the basket against almost anybody ... and it didn't matter.

This is what makes college basketball so great. It's why the next three weeks are going to be so much fun. Sure, the quality of play in the NBA is a lot higher. The highlights are incredible, and even typical plays are impressive. It's a fantastic entertainment product.

But college basketball is more compelling theater -- precisely because the players are not as good. In the NBA, the players are so well-prepared, the teams are so well-scouted, and the best players on each team understand the game too well. They have matured. They are so fundamentally sound. Twenty-eight-year-olds are a lot steadier than 20-year-olds.

You just don't see a guy like Aaron Craft dominate an NBA game with his head and his hands. And you sure don't see it over the course of a seven-game series.

There was Craft, shooting when Michigan State expected him to pass, picking off passes when the Spartans thought they had an opening, and convincing Appling this was a one-on-one showdown when Appling has the more talented team.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, "I think we got caught up in personal matchups a little bit," and that could really only mean one matchup. It was preposterous for Appling to take 17 shots when his more gifted teammate, Adreian Payne, took only five. But Craft has done this to Appling before.

How does Craft do it? The defense has been well-documented. He is one of the best college players I've ever seen at getting to a spot before the man he is guarding. But for a long time, he wasn't much of an offensive player. As it turns out, he didn't score much for the same reason he was so good defensively. He sees all the ways a man can fail.

"The biggest thing we try to do is get him to look at the rim," Boals said. "Aaron is an extremely, extremely intelligent guy who knows everybody's position, everything that is going on. He can call the plays, probably, if he needed to. He is very cerebral. So sometimes I think overanalyzing things may have hurt him."

Craft put Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament title game against Wisconsin, and the nature of these things is that a week from now, most people won't remember who played in the game. Conference tournaments are quirky events. The three most talented teams in the country's most talented league are Indiana, Michigan State and Michigan, and none of them is playing in the final. Instead we get Ohio State (a terrific team) and Wisconsin, whose players most likely have names.

Wisconsin beat top-seeded Indiana Saturday, and then Badgers coach Bo Ryan followed it up by telling the media this enormous, hot-air balloon of a lie. I mean, I've heard coaches lie before. Many times. But what Ryan said was just laughable. What he said was this:

"I've never outcoached anyone. I've never outmaneuvered anyone. I've never out-strategized anyone. But I get to coach, and work with these guys and teach. As long as we keep working, we'll keep doing things that we do. There aren't any secrets."

Obviously, after that fib, I can never believe anything Bo Ryan says again. He has been outcoaching people for many years in this league, and with a little luck, he will find his way to a Final Four. I hope he makes it.

Brilliant coaches like Ryan are also part of what make this month so great. He finds players to fit his system and just wins, wins and wins. I don't know exactly how he does it. I don't fully understand how Aaron Craft does what he does, either. Isn't that what makes March great?

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