Craft’s Duel with Burke Lives Up to Top Billing
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Trey Burke was that close to silencing his demons.
For now, it will have to wait.
Aaron Craft and Trey Burke
Chances are, Burke will hit another big shot against the Buckeyes before he leaves Ann Arbor. Maybe even a game-winner. He already has one against Ohio State, the school that passed on the Northland point guard in favor of a kid from Georgia named Shannon Scott.
That came last season at Michigan when Burke, introduced to the crowd in Ann Arbor as “The pride of Columbus, Ohio,” hit a running layup over Aaron Craft with 11 seconds left to help Michigan snap a six-game losing streak to the Buckeyes.
Since then, it has been all Aaron Craft.
Ohio State’s junior point guard reminded everyone Sunday why he is one of the most talked about defensive players to come through the Big Ten, and really all of college basketball, in the last 20 years.
He’s that good, or least he was Sunday when tasked with the challenge of shutting down Burke, a dynamic young scorer who has become the fearless leader of John Beilein’s No. 2-ranked Wolverines.
“Craft is as good as there is (defensively), as good as I've ever seen,” said the 59-year old Beilein, who has been coaching college basketball since his days at Erie Community College back in 1978.
“He's tremendous. I just applaud that.”
Craft didn’t turn Burke inside-out or upside-down on Sunday the way he did when these two teams met in the Big Ten Tournament last March. Burke will probably never have another game like that, another day that bad, in his entire life.
The last time he had Craft harassing him up and down the court, Burke finished with just five points and four assists. He took 11 shots and made just one of them, while turning the ball over a career-high eight times.
“He’s one of the best defenders,” Burke said, a look of frustration still glued to his face.
“Give him credit. I love playing against him because he makes me better and he makes me work.”
Burke’s a better player now than he was back then, averaging over 18 points and seven assists a game for a Michigan team that came into Columbus as the last undefeated team in Division I college basketball.
He’s got a better team around him, too. None of that helped him find much room against Craft and the Ohio State defense, which was as active and connected as it has been at any point this season for head coach Thad Matta.
“Ohio State is a really, really good defensive team,” said Beilein, who is 3-11 against Matta and the Buckeyes since he took over the Michigan program back in 2007.
“Really good. You're watching a team that plays big-time defense, buys into it and really has skilled defenders on the perimeter.”
Sam Thompson in particular played a whale of a game Sunday. He seemed to everywhere on defense, including between Burke and an alley-oop pass that Thompson snatched out of the sky like it was meant for him.
It was a superb team effort from the Buckeyes, who held Michigan to a season-low 22 first-half points on Sunday. It was also a memorable individual performance from Craft, who always seems to take things a little more personally when he’s facing a player like Burke. Especially after Burke scored that game-winner against him nearly one year ago.
“Aaron had a unique way about him before the game,” Matta said after Ohio State’s 56-53 win over the Wolverines, his 17th in 20 tries.
“I knew he was going to play at the level we needed him to in order to win.”
He was stoic. He was ready. He was glued in at both ends of the floor. During one timeout, Craft even instructed his teammates to stop helping off their man on the wing when Burke dribbled into the middle.
“I’ll do the job,” he told them.
And he did the job the way he always does. Craft and the Buckeyes limited Burke to just five points in the first half on 2-5 shooting. More importantly, they disrupted Burke’s ability to get the Wolverines into a flow offensively. They turned the ball over nine times in the first half, leading to 16 easy points for the Buckeyes at the other end.
“If you tend to make it personal in games like this, you tend not to play your best,” said Craft, who admitted it’s always in the back of his mind as well.
“He's still learning. He's a sophomore. The sky is the limit for him at this point.”
Burke finished with 15 points for the game. He took 13 shots and only made four of them including a double-clutch bank-in from behind the arc. It came with one second on the clock and the Wolverines down by six.
Too little too late for the Columbus native, who 15 seconds earlier had a chance to stun the soldout crowd at Value City Arena with what would have been a go-ahead three.
“It was a good shot with the clock running down,” said Beilein, shaking his head. “Halfway down.”
As close as it will ever get without going in, and a “big time move” according to Matta. It didn’t go down this time, but it won’t be the last time these two competitors will battle for Big Ten supremacy.
We can all be thankful for that.
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