Aaron Craft's need to be one step ahead is most evident when he guards someone on a basketball court. As his coach at Ohio State, Thad Matta, puts it, Craft's is the name that would come up most often "if you polled every coach in this league and asked who they'd want on defense if they're up one with the other team running an isolation." After a sophomore season in which he was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Craft was averaging 1.9 steals through Sunday and many more disruptions a game as point guard for the Buckeyes, who were 13--4, including a 56--53 defeat of previously unbeaten Michigan on Jan. 13, in which Craft harassed Wolverines star Trey Burke into 4-for-13 shooting and four turnovers. Even in last Saturday's 59--56 loss at Michigan State, Craft nearly delivered the Buckeyes a win, not with offense but with three steals during the final 2:21. Ohio State video coordinator Greg Paulus fields so many requests for a Craft-on-defense teaching tape—"on the ball, off the ball, steals, help, multiple efforts"—that he keeps an edit on his desktop, ready to burn on request.
This is an article from the Jan. 28, 2013 issue
But Craft's need to outdo anyone at anything extends far beyond playing defense, from Ping Pong to solving a Rubik's cube. Growing up in small towns in northwest Ohio, he learned that another Midwestern son of a coach, former Indiana star and current New Mexico coach Steve Alford, wouldn't leave a gym until he had "hung the nets" on each basket—meaning he sank a shot with such backspin and precision that the swish caused the nylon to snap up and over the rim. Whereupon Craft tried not only to hang every net but also to send the ball through this redefined opening before heading home.
When a teacher indicated that no one from Liberty-Benton High in Findlay had ever gotten a perfect score on Ohio's state competency test in math, Craft vowed to do so—and did. "The bell would ring at the end of class and he wouldn't leave," recalls that teacher, Ben Gerkin. "He'd be up, still asking questions. I'd ask him, 'Don't you have to go?' He'd use every spare second, then hurry up to his next class."
He's a math-science type, not a language arts guy, but if there's a flaw in some pattern or procedure, count on this first-team Academic All-America (GPA: 3.9) to find it. Last month he flagged a typo in the game program ("Were Are They Now") for Buckeyes sports information officials. The team's director of basketball operations, David Egelhoff, made sure player per diems for the Christmas break were counted out to the penny, lest Craft catch an error and get on his case. "With Aaron around," Egelhoff says, "it's like having Google in the room."
All this know-it-all-ism can make Craft the same kind of irritant to teammates and coaches that he is to opponents, even if it comes from an essentially wholesome, Leave It to Beaver place. In practice, if he misses a shot, he might say, "Oh, you dirty ball," and when he's really upset, mutter "Freak." When Playboy approached him to pose for a shoot for its season preview issue, he was appalled. Busting loose consists of Taco Thursdays at the off-campus apartment he shares with a golfer, a couple of baseball players and a nonathlete, all of whom are devoted to the faith that leads Craft to grace his sneakers with Bible verses, including one about reaping what you sow. "Not that I'll get everything I want," he says. "But if you put in the work, ultimately you'll see the benefit. And it may be something bigger and much more important than what I'm seeing now."
Egelhoff says he can track Craft's movements around campus on Twitter, thanks to the breathless updates of female students. Yet Craft is contentedly dating his high school sweetheart, Ohio State classmate Amber Petersen, and he neither tweets nor follows anyone's feed. "Either I'll read things entirely too good about me, which I shouldn't, or entirely too bad, which I shouldn't either," he says. "There are so many other things I could be doing with my time." He's so Web-averse that he only recently learned that he had inspired SI's Luke Winn to create the Turnometer (page 69), a chart designed to measure all the chaos he creates on defense, uncredited turnovers included.
The most apparently impure thing about him is the nonhygienic way he handles the mouthpiece that his close-quarters, football-inflected style of play requires. During a dead ball, when he takes the molded plastic out of his mouth, he sometimes hangs it on his ear. "It's gross," says his sister, Cait, a 5' 8" freshman guard on the Buckeyes' women's team. "I've harped on him about it for two years." But the mouthpiece does give him a momentarily Spock-like appearance, which is appropriate, for his intelligence seems almost Vulcan. Combine those flashes of Trekkiness with the red splotches of oxygenated blood that bloom beneath his cheeks after tip-off—they're so perfectly rectilinear that you'd think a pair of circuit boards have been implanted under his skin—and Craft looks like a humanoid defender designed in a DARPA lab.
Sift through the annals of college hoops, back to when an Oklahoma A&M Aggie first hiked up a kneepad for Hank Iba in the 1930s, and a defender's task has been essentially reactive. Interposing himself between the ball and the basket, he reads the intended path of his man and, urging muscles to fire as fast as possible, tries his best to block it. But the read-and-react approach is ultimately limited, for it forever puts the defender, well, on the defensive. Craft flips that paradigm. He plays defense as if it were offense. Like any player, he studies film and scouting reports, committing to memory an opponent's tendencies and vulnerabilities. Only Craft, on the floor and on the fly, anticipates a dribbler's destination and resolves to get there first. To do so, he'll move forward and backward as much as left and right, his body low and hands digging.
He has taken the jab step, long regarded as the dribbler's weapon, and turned it into a defender's tool. During Craft's freshman season Michigan State senior Kalin Lucas was as dangerous a dribbler coming off a high ball screen as any guard in the country. But Craft had noticed that, every so often, Lucas would refuse a screen, then take the ball back across his body and be gone, no pick required. Early in their first meeting Lucas twice cornered off a teammate, and Craft sensed that he was being set up. "I'd seen it multiple times on film," he says, "and knew he was going to go for it at some point."
Sure enough, on an ensuing Spartans possession, Lucas gave a high ball screen a miss. By the time he reversed field, Craft had jab-stepped his way into position. Startled, Lucas stumbled. The ball bounced free. Craft scooped it up and off he went.
Such is the world as seen through the eyes of the most creative defensive player in the game. His assignment isn't so much a player to guard; like so much else in his life, it's a problem to solve.
THE PROBLEM: HOW TO STOP A BALLHANDLER IN A FOREST OF BALL SCREENS
Once upon a time a good defender "played the passing lanes well." Nowadays there are no passing lanes, because motion offenses have all but disappeared, replaced by dribblers determined to get to the basket. As someone who has made a study of how to stop them, Craft is as valuable in his own way to Ohio State as shot blockers like Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton were to UCLA in another era.
Effective on-the-ball defenders can generally be placed on a continuum, with long-armed stiflers at one end (think UNLV's Stacey Augmon) and irrepressible feet-movers at the other (Duke's Steve Wojciechowski). Craft sits in the middle. He engages his arms or moves his feet, depending on what's called for. It's striking how rarely he gets rubbed off on a screen, and how instinctively he knows whether to run or slide, scramble over a screen or slip under it, as if some sixth sense were at play.
Yes, if you play defense offensively, and aggressively close out on a ballhandler and guard him as if he's "dribble-used," he can always put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket. But by doing that the offensive player usually forfeits an opportunity to run a set. Craft and the Buckeyes will take that trade—ceding a dribbler a chance to penetrate for the psychological advantage of dictating the terms of play. And good luck getting to the basket if that's your choice, because Craft is likely to turn you. "When Aaron has that point guard with his back to the basket, it gets a team out of its flow," says Ohio State assistant coach Chris Jent. "The point guard can't function. He can't see his guys from 35 feet away."
To hear Craft and the Buckeyes talk about defense is to go down a rabbit hole, into a world of jargon that throws light on all the shape-shifting necessary to play that end of the floor. It's a place where you "get small" when going over a screen but "make yourself big" away from the ball; where you "guard your yard" (stop dribble penetration in the one-yard radius around your assignment) and "doc your man" (close him out as soon as he receives a pass, so he's "dead on the catch," or "doc-ed"); "down" ball screens (force dribblers laterally, where the sidelines can serve as extra defenders) and "show" when sliding into the path of a dribbler. "Not reaching," says Jent. "Reaching makes you slow. Aaron's showing. With his chest. He physically cuts you off with his body, and it's so hard to get by him because of his strength."
There's such a scrupulously thought-out quality to the way Craft plays defense that even opponents are likely to find him as fascinating as infuriating. "He physically beat up our guards," said Florida coach Billy Donovan after a loss to the Buckeyes last season. "And I'm not saying our guards got fouled. Totally within the context of the rules of the game, he manhandled them."
THE PROBLEM: REFEREES
As Donovan's comment suggests, Craft's style tends to attract an official's attention. So he opens a dialogue—not so much to appeal calls (though Craft does his share of that), but rather to dope out what he can get away with, as a smart pitcher learns the strike zone of each ump. Show me your hands, a referee once told him after a travel-team game. If I can see your hands, I know you're not using them for something you shouldn't. So Craft holds his hands higher up and farther from his body than most defenders do, so refs "are less likely to call a foul," he says, "even if there's a little contact."
This has the additional benefit of preserving his balance. And when guarding a ballhandler, Craft often measures out his distance literally with an arm's length—both to show that his hands aren't up to any improper mischief, and to signal to the ref to begin counting out a five-second violation. "He shows that hand, and guards can feel the count," says Jent.
In a 70--43 defeat of Northern Kentucky in December, Craft made off with a steal on a breakaway, only to be stripped from behind as he went up for the layup. Craft objected that no foul was called.
"That kid must have studied you on tape," the official replied.
Craft didn't think much of the referee's explanation, even if it had been wrapped in a compliment. On the very next possession Craft earned a five-second call, whistled by the same ref. "You hardly ever get a five-second call just by sticking an arm out," Craft says. "But the arm makes the offensive player think. And you don't want to let him take up that space, because if you do he's going to go by you, and you'll foul him, especially in the open floor.
"So when he does try to close up that space, I try not to use my hands at all. A five-second call, a timely charge—you get steals and turnovers with your feet."
THE PROBLEM: HOW TO GROW UP TOUGH IN SMALL-TOWN OHIO
Craft found a solution in Fostoria, a railroading town subject to the cyclical fortunes of the auto-parts industry. Aaron's father, John, has spent 28 years there as a high school teacher, most of them with football and basketball coaching duties at various grade levels, and the Crafts lived in Fostoria (pop. 13,411) until Aaron finished sixth grade. By the time they moved 15 miles west to Findlay, a more affluent city of 41,351 that serves as corporate headquarters to Marathon Petroleum, Aaron had been exposed to the racial diversity and working-class grittiness that Findlay largely lacks. Many of Fostoria's spark plug and crankshaft plants may be shuttered, but first-class Big Ten defenders remain a reliable export: Aaron's best Fostoria friend, Micah Hyde, was a first-team all-conference cornerback at Iowa this season. "Fostoria kids were tough kids," John says. "You grew up proving yourself. You never had to worry about those guys with video games. They'd be outside, climbing a tree. It was very old school."
When Aaron was in grade school, Fostoria High coach Keith Diebler—father of recent Ohio State three-point artist Jon Diebler—introduced a drill that required players to practice defensive slides while holding a brick in each hand. John Craft, then coaching in a junior high, wanted to give his players a taste of what the varsity did, and Aaron, tagging along as usual, was eager to step in and try. He has never really stopped sliding since; two of those seminal bricks remain in a corner of the Craft garage in Findlay, still wrapped in newspaper and silver duct tape.
Meanwhile, Aaron's father never drew a bright line between coaching football and coaching basketball. Inspired by Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, John would put his basketball players through drills in football pads. And as an admirer of Jim Herrmann, the longtime linebackers coach at Michigan, he paid extra attention to the quarterbacks of the defense. On Thursday evenings John and his wife, Wendy, would have the Fostoria High linebackers over to the house, to chow down and talk chalk over game film. By third grade Aaron had grasped the importance of studying an opponent, understanding that you can stunt and blitz to keep him off balance. He also heard upset parents calling the house and players clamoring for more playing time. One of them, a kid named Damon Moore, put in two years in the purgatory of the Fostoria scout team. "Damon got the snot knocked out of him in practice," John Craft says. "And he was eventually an All--Big Ten safety at Ohio State who played in the NFL for the Eagles. Aaron saw how it paid off."
By fourth grade Aaron entered the travel-team world, first with Jimmy Jackson's Team Toledo and eventually with All--Ohio Red, the Columbus-based outfit that would win three straight AAU national titles with another Buckeye-to-be, Jared Sullinger, now a Celtics forward. The experience gave him a sense of the rough-and-tumble of big-city basketball and underscored that any team will find a place for a defender. Ohio State guard Shannon Scott, the son of former North Carolina All-America and NBA star Charlie Scott, recalls first encountering his future teammate at Akron's King James tournament: "My dad said, 'You want to watch a guy play defense? Watch him.' Aaron's really strong and fast, but more than that it's his mentality."
That mentality, Aaron agrees, was reinforced by his brother, Brandon, who is three years older. Trying to worm his way into games with Brandon and his friends, Aaron quickly figured out how to make himself valuable without shooting. "Aaron was always trying to poke his nose in Brandon's business," Cait says. "And there was big brother, always pushing Aaron around. Losing and Aaron never went down well." (After a knee injury cut short his football career at Division II University of Findlay, Brandon, who was an All-State linebacker in high school, left for the Army as an infantryman the day after Aaron arrived for his freshman year in Columbus. Brandon's deployment to Afghanistan started just as Aaron and the Buckeyes reached last spring's Final Four; he made it home last month, right before Christmas.)
The two enjoyed one year together as football and basketball teammates when Aaron was a high school freshman. Starting at quarterback for Liberty-Benton High in the state semifinal game as a 15-year-old, Aaron completed 31 of 36 passes for more than 300 yards as the Eagles fell a touchdown short. "Whether it was presnap or after the snap, he wouldn't miss a thing," says Tim Nichols, the Liberty-Benton football coach. "Same when he was a defensive back. The game kind of slows down for that kid."
Craft went 88--45 over four years in basketball, one of those losses coming during his junior season when Tallmadge High, down two points in overtime, banked in a half-court shot at the buzzer. Craft missed 17 of 25 free throws that night, including four in the final 10 seconds. The next morning he scooped up his little sister to head for the gym to do penance. "I didn't bother bringing my own sneakers to shoot," says Cait, who rebounded for more than two hours. She recalls how each made free throw only left Aaron angrier, wondering why that one couldn't have been the difference-making shot the night before.
The Ohio State coaches had seen plenty of Craft from recruiting Sullinger. "We'd always liked him but weren't ready to pull the trigger," Matta says. "Then Jared walked into our office one day and said, 'Offer Aaron a scholarship.' The guys I've had who played football have always had a different mind-set on defense, and Aaron would be the poster child for a basketball player from a football state."
THE PROBLEM: OVERTHINKING ON OFFENSE
If anyone can help Craft solve this one, it's the Buckeyes' video coordinator. A similarly rugged defender as a guard at Duke, Greg Paulus went on to play a season at quarterback for Syracuse, and he marvels at Craft's ability to process information. "As a quarterback you're supposed to understand what the other 10 guys should do on every play," he says. "Aaron will know not just his guy but all five guys. Show him anything, and he'll remember everything. It's enough to make your head hurt."
But the analytical bent that makes Craft such an effective defender can leave him less instinctive at the other end of the floor. He understands this as well as anyone. "The two sides of the ball are different," he says. "If you overthink on offense, it can be all downhill from there."
Craft has struggled much of this season to go against his nature on offense and, as Jent puts it, "think of a way not to think." He had been shooting 36.7% from the field until he had a breakout of sorts on Jan. 8 in a 74--64 win at Purdue. After disrupting the Boilermakers' first possession by fleecing point guard Ronnie Johnson and sailing in for a layup, Craft picked up a couple of quick fouls and had to sit for the rest of the half. But in the final 20 minutes he dominated from the backcourt, sinking all five shots he took, scoring 13 points and refraining from fouling again as the Buckeyes claimed that rarest of prizes, a double-digit Big Ten road win.
You can see traces of the grade-school windup in Craft's shot, and a little hitch occasionally resurfaces. "No flow chart!" Paulus barked at a recent practice, after catching him steering a shot rather than flicking it. "Bar graph?" Craft replied. And that's what passes for witty repartee between two smart, defensive-minded, film-obsessed ex-quarterbacks.
THE PROBLEM: LONG BEACH STATE POINT GUARD MIKE CAFFEY
The solution begins in the Buckeyes' film room, where Craft is hunched over a laptop. Paulus, hovering at his elbow, has put together a "personnel edit" of Caffey, the sophomore who'll be Craft's assignment for a December game in Columbus the next day.
Caffey is what coaches call a "contact-to-space" guard, someone who plays the position as if he's driving a bumper car. Pressured, he tends to drive out of control; witness his three turnovers a game. He likes to dribble left into a step-back jumper, and he'll take (and can make) the three-pointer, though right now his confidence is likely quailing: He's 4 for 22 over his last six games.
As the personnel edit unspools, it's as if someone has turned on the director's commentary on a DVD. "He's got a good change of pace, so I've got to stay down," Craft says. "He doesn't like to change hands a lot.... He's kind of lax with the ball, so that's good for me, I don't need to force too much.... He can get going—he likes big shots and wants to have the ball in his hands."
In one clip Caffey runs the shot clock down from 30 to 19 seconds. He takes 15 dribbles during this stretch—Craft and Paulus count them—before stepping back to his left and settling into that signature jumper, which he sinks. Craft shakes his head: "That's just bad defense, Gregory."
Perhaps the most salient point to emerge from the tape is that Caffey likes space. Job One will be to deny it to him.
"All good players have patterns and go-to moves," Craft says. "The great ones have more than one. As a defender you go through ways to take them out of their rhythm, and maybe force them to their second or third option and that usually does the trick."
The following day, not four minutes into the game, Craft closes out Caffey beyond the key. Caffey picks up his dribble and, flinching at the pressure, shuffles his feet. He's whistled for a travel. Less than a minute later Craft locks him up again, this time for a five-second call. Neither will go into the books as a steal, but each is a turnover that Craft forced—precisely the things that the Turnometer was created to track.
Caffey is solved for the afternoon. He'll shoot 1 for 11 with four turnovers in 24 minutes and plays only five in the second half. "Craft is as good a defender on the ball as I've seen," Long Beach State coach Dan Monson says afterward. "We think Mike is going to be a very good point guard for us, but today he was really frustrated. You've got to give all credit to Aaron."
As Craft will say, "After the first couple of turnovers he tried to get by me instead of running the offense. You commit a turnover, it gets in your head. It could happen to anybody."
But it tends to happen strikingly often to the guy Craft guards.
THE PROBLEM: RUBIK'S CUBE
Every half-century or so Ohio State features someone with a mind to match his basketball skills. George Bellows starred in the forecourt just after the turn of the century and went on to become one of America's most bracingly versatile painters. Jerry Lucas made a posthoops career as a memory expert with a range of parlor tricks, including the ability to recite portions of the Manhattan phone book. Today, on YouTube, you can find video of Craft solving Rubik's Cube in 65 seconds.
When a Rubik's craze swept through Liberty-Benton High during his junior year, Craft expropriated his sister's cube and set out on his usual quest to master a task. He took it apart and smeared each part with Vaseline so he could manipulate the cube faster. Striding on stage to accept a player of the year award at an end-of-season banquet, he flashed its multicolors at friends and family from his suit coat pocket. His personal best is 55 seconds, a mark he says he could bring down "if I had a little more time on my hands."
After the Big Ten Network filmed him doing a Rubik's demo last season, Craft mock-complained that the athletic department treats him like a novelty act—"Just your monkey on a unicycle, to be trotted out." Nonetheless, in honor of Pi Day, March 14 (or 3.14), he memorized the familiar mathematical constant to 68 decimal places, one for each team in the NCAA tournament.
It's not unusual for a college star to be first in the gym and last to leave. Craft is that, but on road trips he's also first to the study table and last to leave. A nutrition major on an honors track, he hopes to go to medical school. (Scouts say his on-the-ball defensive ability, and NBA teams' habit of keeping three point guards, give him a decent shot at a pro career first.) His GPA is blemished only by a B-plus in the first term of General Chemistry. It should come as no surprise that, second term, he shot enough metaphorical extra free throws to get an A.
"I once asked him about Rubik's Cube," says Chad McClellan, the team's academic counselor. "He said, 'Don't you get it?' He told me it's a simple algorithm. Or logarithm, I can't remember which."
Aaron: Rubik's cube, algorithm or logarithm?
Against the kid who can one-up the academic counselor, the nation's point guards hardly stand a chance.
See Craft solve a Rubik's cube in 65 seconds and check out Luke Winn's All-Defensive team in SI's tablet edition, free to subscribers at SI.com/activate.
Craft forces turnovers on 6.83% of opponents' possessions
STEALS, CREDITED 32
CHARGES/MOVING SCREENS 6
MISC. TOS, UNCREDITED 22.3
Traditional box scores fall short of quantifying a defender's total turnover production. SI.com's Luke Winn charted video of every turnover Ohio State has forced this season to get a more accurate sense of Craft's disruptiveness.
Through 17 games