January 13, 2013

Craft bests Burke in Big Ten battle

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As is usually the case, the latest matchup between Ohio State and Michigan was decided by the two teams' quarterbacks.

But it wasn't Braxton Miller or Denard Robinson making the difference in Sunday's game between the Buckeyes and Wolverines, but rather Ohio State's Aaron Craft and his counterpart, Michigan's Trey Burke.

Each playing 37 minutes, the two point guards dueled for nearly the entirety of Sunday's 56-53 Buckeyes victory. Both players made pivotal plays and helped aide their teams- albeit in different ways- throughout what was ultimately the No. 2-ranked Wolverines first defeat of the season.

It started with Craft, who scored seven points in a first half that saw Ohio State lead by as many as 21 points. Buckeyes coach Thad Matat said he noticed a different demeanor in the junior point guard before even the opening tipoff.

"He had a unique way about him today in terms of before the game. As a coach, you study body language, you study facial expressions of your players. I didn't say a lot to him," Matta said. "Very stoic, would probably be the best word. Sometimes in the starting lineup, he's always the last one announced and we may joke around or smile or something, but there was none of that today. He couldn't wait for his name to get called."

Perhaps even more importantly, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year limited Burke to just five first half points on 2-of-5 shooting. With a history with Craft that dates back to intra-squad scrimmages in the All-Ohio AAU program, Burke said that he enjoys the challenge of facing the Buckeyes' point guard.

"Craft is one of the best defenders. You gotta give him credit, he's a great defender," Burke said. "I love playing against him because he makes me better and he makes me work."

Burke found some rhythm in the second half, however, scoring 10 points as Michigan battled back to tie the game with fewer than six minutes remaining in the game. Craft wasn't surprised by the resurgence of Burke, who entered Sunday's matchup as a National Player of the Year candidate with averages of 18.2 points and 7.3 points per game.

"He's a great player," Craft said of Burke. "He's really done a great job of getting better over his freshman to sophomore year."

Although Burke's 15 points came on 4-of-13 shooting, that was all rendered irrelevant during the game's biggest play of the night.

With 29 seconds remaining and trailing by two points, Michigan drew up a play to either tie the game or steal the game outright in Columbus. With Craft guarding him, Burke- a Columbus native- let 13 seconds tick off of the shot clock, before attempting a step back 3-point shot that would've given the Wolverines the lead. The shot appeared to go in, but bounced back out of the rim, much to the delight of Craft, who was certain that Michigan was about to take the lead.

"It was a great shot. I'm not going to lie, I thought it was going to go in when I turned around," Craft said. "Fortunately enough that shot he shot rimmed in and out."

Michigan coach John Beilein admitted that Craft defending Burke made the shot much tougher for his star player, and that the matchup was ultimately the difference in Sunday's game.

"That's what it comes down to, sometimes, a matchup of a 21-year-old against an 18-year-old, or a tremendous defender doing things," Beilein said. "Craft is as good as there is- I've ever seen. He's tremendous. He's going to be good and you just have to applaud that and say okay, we've got to continue to get better, because they're going to continue to get better."

The Wolverines will get the chance to prove they've gotten better when the Buckeyes come to Ann Arbor on Feb. 5, in a game in which Craft will surely be ready for round five with one of the Big Ten's best in Burke.

"Any time you get to play against a great guy like him, you always get that little bit of an incentive to go out there and see what you can do," Craft said. "As a team, we did a great job stepping up to that challenge."


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