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February 11, 2014

The tough guard

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COLUMBUS, Ohio-He ran through one screen, and then another, and then another. He made his way from one side of the floor to the opposite. The sequence ended with the man he was attempting to guard hitting a step-back, fade-away 3-pointer.

Aaron Craft has guarded a number of elite offensive players throughout his four-year career at Ohio State. He's the Buckeyes' best perimeter defender; so naturally, he usually draws the opposing team's most potent threat. That player has been former national player of the year Trey Burke, former NBA lottery picks Brandon Knight and Victor Oladipo, and a handful of all-conference guards.

None were tougher to defend than the player that stood before Craft Tuesday night in Columbus: Michigan sophomore guard Nik Stauskas.

Stauskas' No. 15 Wolverines bested Craft's No. 22 Buckeyes, 70-60, at the Schottenstein Center Tuesday night. The 6-foot-6 Canadian sharpshooter scored 15 points on 44 percent shooting. All of his buckets came with Ohio State's rosy-cheeked guard on him; Lenzelle Smith Jr., Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson each took quick turns guarding Stauskas at some point, too, but it was Craft who took the majority of the challenge.

But the matchup was Craft-Stauskas, and Stauskas won.

When Stauskas plays well, Michigan wins, and when he doesn't, the Wolverines lose, usually. In Michigan's last four defeats, Stauskas averaged 8.5 points per game. On the season, he's averaging 17 a game.

Stauskas played well Tuesday night, so Michigan (18-6, 10-2) won and Ohio State (19-6, 6-6) lost. The Buckeyes came into the contest having won three straight games, two of which came at then-No. 14 Wisconsin and then-No. 17 Iowa. None of those teams, though, possessed an offensive talent like Stauskas.

It's not just talent that makes Stauskas a tough guard. Burke, Oladipo, and other players Craft has defender are probably all more athletically gifted. But Stauskas uses his abilities, and his teammates, as well as anyone. Because when you guard Stauskas, you can't just worry about him, you have to worry about each of his teammates that will be setting picks and screens.

"He's good, the way he plays off the ball, using ball screens, using his body. So it's not a one-on-one type thing," Craft said. "You have to rely on your teammates. For the most part, we did a decent job, and when we didn't he took advantage."

The other thing that's tough about facing Stauskas is that you can't help off of him. Craft might be the country's best defender, but when he's guarding a player like Stauskas, he's less effective. One of Craft's best tools is his ability to get in passing lanes and disrupt plays no matter if he's guarding the player with the ball or not. But that can't happen when Craft has to stick tightly on a shooter.

Michigan knew this, so at times, they tried to just stick Stauskas in a corner and play four-on-four.

"There's certain action that we'll do to just keep Craft out of there, over there, and let the other four guys play us," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "He's not going to help off Nik. When he helps, and he does some things, he disrupts everything. So there was different things that we were doing. But they won't let you do a lot of things, as well."

When Michigan did that, it usually worked. Wolverine guards Derrick Walton Jr, and Zak Irvin each had big games, scoring 13 and 10 points, respectively. Many of their points came on drives to the basket through open lanes, lanes that were open because Craft had to stay in a corner on Stauskas.

Overall, though, Craft's job on Stauskas wasn't poor. He held him to two points less than his season average, and nearly every shot Stauskas took was a tough, contested one.

"Aaron is probably one of the best defensive players in the country. He plays defense with his feet; it's the way defense is supposed to be played. He doesn't fall for a lot of ball fakes," Stauskas said. "It's definitely tough going against him. You've got to be patient and confident with the ball."

And really, defense wasn't the issue against Michigan. Offense was. Ohio State shot 3-for-20 from 3-point range and outside of LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr., who scored 24 and 13 points, respectively, no one was effective.

But this is who this Ohio State team is, and they're likely not going to change. Like Craft's task in guarding Stauskas, the Buckeyes have to grind and work through a lot to win games.

"No question about that," Thad Matta said. "No question."



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