Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Matta talks with guard Craft in the second half against the Wichita State Shockers during their West Regional NCAA men's basketball game in Los Angeles

Kyrie Irving on if Aaron Craft is an NBA player: ‘Oh yeah. I believe so’

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Believe it or not, Aaron Craft will head into this season as one of the nation’s most polarizing players.

He embodies every single one of the clichés that sportswriters love to use — heady, gritty, tough, team-first, winner, etc., etc., etc. — but his individual numbers are far less impressive that the win-loss record of Ohio State when Craft is running the team.

Essentially, the argument is this: Craft is either a) the leader that carries the Buckeyes to win after win after win, or b) an overrated stiff that’s gotten a great reputation running the point for his more talented teammates.

Personally, I agree with the former. Outside of Marcus Smart and maybe Jahii Carson, there’s not a point guard in the country that I would rather have if I was starting a team. You can’t teach being a winner, you can’t teach being a leader and you can’t teach the desire to be arguably the best on-ball defender in the country.

Since Craft is a senior, the debate has now extended to his potential as a pro. There are some obvious physical limitations — Craft is not all that tall, he’s not all that explosive, he doesn’t have a massive wingspan — but the intangibles that he brings could, in theory, make him an ideal backup point guard. Kyrie Irving, who is arguably the best point guard in the world right now, was asked whether or not he thought Craft had a shot at the NBA. From Scout.com’s Ohio State site:

“Oh yeah. I believe so,” Irving said when asked if Craft could cut it in the NBA. “He’s a leader, he’s a tough defender, he’s been working on his offensive game. I’m interested to see the things that he’s learned from the camp and the things that he’s accomplished this summer in terms of his game and see the difference between his junior and senior year.

“He did well against the other campers. He played me tough and I know he learned a lot at the camp.”

The camp that Irving is referring to is the Nike Point Guard Academy that Craft attended in New Jersey this summer. I was there on the afternoon that they opened the doors to the media, and I can confirm Irving’s account that Craft played him tough. He picked him up full court on a number of different occasions and played a major role in forcing Irving into some tough shots.

But here’s the thing: we know that Craft can defend people. That’s not a surprise to anyone.

The issue is whether or not he’ll be a liability on the offensive end of the floor. Is he going to have NBA three-point range? Can he effectively run a pick-and-roll against NBA point guards? Will he be able to score off the dribble? At that level, point guards have to be able to score the ball to keep defenses honest, and that’s a legitimate concern about Craft heading into his senior year.

He’ll have a chance to change that perspective, however. Ohio State needs people to step up to replace the scoring they lost with Deshaun Thomas heading to the NBA, and if Craft is one of the guys that can do that, he may play himself into the league.

Regardless of how his pro career turns out, it won’t change the fact that Craft has been one of the best collegiate point guards you’ll see.

Battle 4 Atlantis title proves Syracuse will be relevant this season

rad Horrigan/The Courant via AP
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Michael Gbinije scored 20 points and Trevor Cooney added 15 points and five assists as Syracuse left the Bahamas with a title, beating No. 25 Texas A&M 74-67 in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

I guess it’s time to start taking the Orange seriously.

There’s a lot to like about this group. Gbinije and Cooney are both fifth-year seniors that not only understand how to operate at the top of the 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim runs, but they both have developed into versatile offensive weapons. Cooney was known as nothing more than a jump-shooter when he arrived up north, but he’s now averaging 3.5 assists on the season.

And Gbinije?

He has been one of the best players in the country through the first two weeks of the season. Through six games, he’s averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.0 boards and 2.8 steals while shooting 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Freshman Malachi Richardson, who had 16 points in the win over A&M, has scored double-figures in all six games this season while another freshman, Tyler Lydon, was against terrific on Friday, finishing with 13 points and eight boards. He’s now shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.

And that’s where this team is going to do the majority of their damage this season.

Through six games, they’re shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. In the three wins in the Bahamas, the Orange knocked were 34-for-73 from beyond the arc, a 46.5 percent clip. The question isn’t whether or not that rate can continue — four of the six players that saw action on Friday are dangerous three-point shooters while the other two, Tyler Roberson  and DaJuan Coleman, aren’t going to be shooting threes — but what happens on the nights where the threes aren’t going down.

There are going to be nights where they shoot 5-for-25 instead of 11-for-25. Will they have enough firepower then? Will their defense be good enough? Will guys like Roberson and Coleman be able to supply a scoring punch? Will Cooney, Gbinije and Richardson attack the paint instead of settling for jumpers?

Because at the very least, these three games in the Bahamas have proven that the Orange are going to be relevant this season, even in the loaded ACC. Whether that means they’re going to push for a top four finish or simply end the year as a tournament team remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Jim Boeheim has himself a squad Upstate.

No. 10 Gonzaga outlasts No. 18 UConn despite late offensive struggles

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No. 10 Gonzaga survived a furious rally from No. 18 UConn to win the third place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, 73-70.

The Zags were up by as much as 21 points early in the second half, leading 48-27, but UConn slowly chipped away at the lead. Kyle Wiltjer led four players in double-figures with 17 points while Eric McClellan added 15 points, making a number of key plays in the second half when it looked like the Zags were in danger of giving away the lead.

As good as Gonzaga looked in the first 22 minutes of this game — and they looked really, really good — the second half exposed the concerns that many had with this group entering the season. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who both shot around 40 percent from beyond the arc and started for four years, graduated, meaning that Gonzaga’s point guard situation is, more or less, Josh Perkins.

Perkins was terrific in the second half of a loss to Texas A&M on Thursday. He played 17 foul-plagued minutes against UConn. When UConn’s defense ratcheted up during the second half, Gonzaga struggled finding a way to consistently get good shots on the offensive end. Part of that was due to ineffective point guard play and part of it was a result of not really having anyone on the offensive end that can create a look on their own. As skilled as Wiltjer is, his impact can be limited when pick-and-pop actions aren’t working and he’s getting doubled in the post.

Perkins is talented, but this is essentially his first season of college basketball; he was a medical redshirt last season after breaking his jaw last November. There are going to be ups-and-downs, and that’s problematic on a team where he is essentially the only point guard on the roster.

The good news?

Gonzaga beat a good UConn team on a day when their best players struggled in crunch-time. It was McClellan and Kyle Dranginis that made the big plays down the stretch, not the big names on the Gonzaga roster.