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Aaron Craft ready to play more of an attacking role

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UNION, N.J. — The knock on Ohio State for much of the 2012-2013 season was that they relied far too much on Deshaun Thomas on the offensive end of the floor. They didn’t have a second option, and on the nights when Thomas wasn’t hitting his shots, the Buckeyes weren’t winning games.

That changed down the stretch of the season, however.

Ohio State won their last five regular season games before taking home the Big Ten tournament title and coming within a game of making the Final Four, a feat that no one thought possible last January. The reason for that surge? The play of point guard Aaron Craft, who became a much more aggressive player on the offensive end of the floor over the last month-and-a-half of the season. He had 21 points and six assists in a regular season win over Michigan State. He went for 15 points, four assists and four steals in a win over Indiana. He had 20 points, nine assists and four steals against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. He went for 18 points and six assists — including the game-saving charge and game-winning three — in a win over Iowa State to reach the Sweet 16.

And if the Buckeyes are going to make a run at a Big Ten regular season title in 2013-2014, they are going to need that kind of play out of Craft the entire season.

“I’ve gotta continue to lead the team, the biggest thing [to improve on] would be being aggressive on offense,” Craft told NBCSports.com at the Nike Skills Academy on the campus of Kean University. “Without having a guy like DT where you can throw him the ball and let him do his thing. We’re going to have to find a way to create shots and get open ones, so if I can attack better, I think it will help us out.”

And therein lies the biggest question mark when it comes to the Buckeyes next season. As good as Craft is, his entire career at Ohio State has been built around his leadership and his defense. He’s not a dynamic playmaker, he’s a facilitator. He picks his spots well and he’s aggressive when he needs to be, but he hasn’t been the kind of point guard that can beat his man one-on-one and create a shot for himself or his team on any possession. He’s not Trey Burke.

But there were times where he was as effective as Burke was last season, especially late in the regular season, and it’s those moments that Craft will be looking to build off of.

“Guys like Kyrie [Irving] are always in attack mode,” Craft said. “It’s not always for him to score, it’s for everybody. It’s for his entire team, whether he’s getting a good shot or he’s helping somebody else get a good shot. Just trying to be aggressive and be in attack mode, not trying to go to fast but to make quick decisions. We can make adjustments from there.”

The good news is that there will be some talent surrounding Craft next season. Shannon Scott showed flashes of serious potential as a sophomore. Lenzelle Smith has some big scoring games. LaQuinton Ross played his way into some 2014 mock drafts with his play in the postseason.

None of those guys have shown any kind of consistency, however.

Craft has.

Which is ironic, really.

While Scott, Ross and Smith will be looking to improve their consistency next year, Craft, who has built a career out of consistently playing at a high level, will be looking to break out of his mold.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.