At Big Ten media day in Chicago last October, the mere mention of Aaron Craft’s name caused Tom Izzo to immediately shake his head.
If the Michigan State head coach is still getting headaches because of the Ohio State point guard, it’d be hard to blame him.
“There’s a lot of great players, but there’s not a lot of great winners,” Izzo told BuckeyeSports.com. “Aaron Craft is a great winner.”
Comparing the Findlay, Ohio native to some of the great point guards he’s coached, from Eric Snow to Mateen Cleaves, Izzo’s admiration for Craft is clear. Ridiculous column premises (and subsequent double downs) aside, there’s more than one reason that Craft has stood out to Izzo, who on multiple occasions has referred to the 6-2, 195-pounder as “the best on-ball defender I’ve ever seen.”
In three battles between the Buckeyes and Spartans last season, Craft showed more than just his usual stellar defense, averaging 15.3 points and seven assists in what were ultimately two OSU victories, including one in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal. The then-junior guard’s 21-point effort on Feb. 28 still stands as career-high for Craft, who declined to share the secret to his success against the Spartans.
“Michigan State’s a big pressure team. They really thrive off turnovers,” Craft said in attempt to deflect the question. “That’s who they are and that’s what you come into the game expecting. You can’t change too much of your identity.”
Whether it was giving him his shot or making him drive around them and finish, the Spartans never seemed to find a true answer for how to defend Craft, who found success both around the rim and the arc against Michigan State last season. In what will be just the latest primetime matchup between two of the Big Ten’s top programs, Craft will get another shot at the Spartans tonight, when the third-ranked Buckeyes (15-0, 2-0) head to East Lansing to face No. 5 Michigan State (13-1, 2-0).
Billed as his team’s first true battle of the season after a fairly undistinguishable non-conference slate, OSU head coach Thad Matta is excited to see where his squad stands against one of the conference’s pillar programs and head coaches.
"I have the utmost respect for Coach Izzo," Matta said. "I look at what he has built in his time at Michigan State and he's done it the right way which is the most important thing.”
The feeling is mutual with Izzo, who admitted that tonight’s matchup is not “just another game” for Michigan State. That especially holds true for Spartans point guard Keith Appling, who will be faced with the task of guarding Craft -- something that he struggled with a year ago.
But despite the challenge that lays ahead of him, Izzo doesn’t want his senior guard focused on outplaying Ohio State’s.
"Sometimes Keith will do that," Izzo admitted. "It gets to be where those two get talked about and that's not good for Keith. He's got to just play his game. They're two different kinds of players, both very good defensively. But Keith can do some other things — scoring the ball -- that I think Craft can't do. And Craft can do some things that Keith doesn't do as well. "
Between two eventual hall of fame head coaches, the league’s top two point guards, and NBA prospects in OSU’s LaQuinton Ross and MSU’s Adreian Payne and Gary Harris, there won’t be any shortage of star power inside of the Jack Breslin Center for tonight’s 9 p.m. tipoff. A forecast consisting of single-digit temperatures and snow showers in East Lansing could potentially dampen the atmosphere, but Izzo is hopeful that all it will affect is the rosiness of Craft's cheeks.
"Two top-five teams, that doesn't happen very often here," Izzo said. "It is a special event and you just hope the weather holds up so it becomes one."