Craft, Buckeyes take advantage of weary Duke in decisive victory
Aaron Craft is playing point guard better than anyone in the country
Duke looked tired after a trip to Maui wrapped up seven games in 13 days
Deshaun Thomas is a valuable fourth option for Ohio State on offense
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Immediate question: Was Ohio State that good or was Duke that bad?
Long-term question: Is Ohio State really that good, and is Duke really that bad?
Answer: Not really.
The truth is, there's not much that can be learned from a 22-point beatdown. "We've had our butts kicked, and we've kicked some butt," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Right now my butt is sore." My brain's sore trying to riddle a few salient lessons from this massacre. Here's what we learned tonight:
1. Until further notice, Aaron Craft is the best point guard in the country. There is no obvious designee for this honorific, nor is there any shortage of worthy candidates. But nobody has better overall command of the game on both ends of the floor than Ohio State's 6-foot-2 sophomore. Tuesday was the third time in five games that Craft had eight assists. (He also had a season-high four turnovers.) He also had his best shooting night of the season, making seven of his 11 attempts overall, and three for four from three-point range. One of those makes was accidentally banked in from the top of the key. They say it's better to be lucky than good, but on this night Craft was both -- and it didn't seem fair.
Craft is certainly lucky to be surrounded by so much talent. As Krzyzewski put it, "part of being a good point guard is having good players you can point-guard for." But Craft also thinks the game at a very high level. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said that at one point, when he warned Craft he had three fouls, Craft corrected him and said he only had two. (Matta had to check with his assistants to see if Craft was right. He was.) Last Friday against Valparaiso, Craft told Matta that he should stop the game because a teammate had just made a three but the refs only credited him for a two. (Matta asked the refs to check the monitor to see if Craft was right. He was.) Matta also said he lets Craft pretty much decide how many minutes he's capable of playing each game. He played a season-high 38 on Tuesday night and didn't seem the least bit tired.
There may be other point guards who will have a brighter NBA future. But if I could pick one point guard to win a college basketball game tomorrow night, I would pick Craft. I have a feeling I'm not alone.
2. Columbus is a long way from Maui. Technically, it's 4,457 miles, but it felt even longer for Duke. When Krzyzewski pointed out early in his postgame news conference that his team had played seven games in 13 days, he wasn't making an excuse, he was stating a fact. Part of being a great team is learning to fight through fatigue, but Duke had much more fatigue than fight. Krzyzewski parked three of his starters -- guards Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry, and forward Ryan Kelly -- on the bench with 10 minutes to play in the second half and left them there. When he said that he did that so he could see what his reserves could do, he was unconvincing. That was a sit-your-ass-down move if ever there was one.
Not only did the Blue Devils play three games in three days at the Maui Invitational, they jammed in four games before they left because the school wanted to ensure Krzyzewski would break Bob Knight's alltime wins record on the mainland. Flying home, then flying out to play a road game at 9:30 p.m. against the No. 2 team in the country is a brutal turnaround. "We didn't handle that well," Coach K said. "When you play on the road, you have to be juiced up. Even if we were, we might not have won, but [the schedule] did have a bearing."
Matta agreed. When he was told that Krzyzewski thought the schedule had left his guys out of gas, Matta quipped, "Now will you guys stop asking me why we don't go to Maui?"
3. Austin Rivers is the real deal. There obviously weren't many bright spots for Duke, but the play of their much-heralded freshman was one of them. It's not just that Rivers scored a game-high 22 points and only had two turnovers in 37 minutes. It's the way he competed. Krzyzewski yanked Rivers from the game early in the first half after he blew some defensive assignments, but the freshman bounced back in impressive fashion. For most of the game, he was the team's only semblance of offense, and he was pretty much creating it on his own. Rivers has begun the season in fits and starts, but I'm sure he gained a lot of confidence from this game.
4. Ohio State is a versatile defensive team. The Buckeyes' primary concern coming in was Duke's three-point shooting. "We told our guys, they're going to make shots. You can't be surprised when they do," Matta said. Imagine their surprise when Duke didn't. The Blue Devils made exactly one made three-pointer (in seven attempts) in the first half. For the game they were 3 for 20. Yes, the tired legs were a factor, but so was the Buckeyes' D.
Matta wasn't sure who would guard whom, so he gave all of his players a DVD of all of Duke's guards and let them know they should be ready to check any of them. He started with 6-4 sophomore Lenzelle Smith on Rivers, and throughout the game Matta rotated his batch of long-armed swingmen (William Buford, Deshaun Thomas and Evan Ravenel) on to Duke's perimeter snipers. Aside from the occasional burst from Rivers, the Devils were silenced. Mission accomplished.
5. Deshaun Thomas is Ohio State's X factor. We know Jared Sullinger is a player of the year candidate, Craft is an outstanding point guard, and Buford is a future pro. We know less about what the Buckeyes are going to get each night from Thomas, but we also know this: If he keeps giving them what he gave them Tuesday night, they are going to be near-impossible to beat.
Thomas had a typically up-and-down freshman season a year ago. He started off with a blast, hanging 24 points on North Carolina A&T in the season-opener. From there, he mostly disappeared into the background, but he was front and center Tuesday night -- especially at the end of the first half when he scored the team's final nine points to send them into the locker room up 19. He finished with 18 points (on 8-for-12 shooting) and five rebounds in 28 minutes. That's what you call a good night's work.
Thomas, like many of his young Buckeye teammates, still has some growing up to do. After he turned in a lackluster effort at the start of the Valparaiso game, Matta told him at halftime, "I had a feeling before the game you weren't ready to play." But even a great defensive team can only plug so many dikes. If your top priority is holding down Sullinger, and if your second priority is stopping Craft's penetration, and your third is keeping Buford off the glass ... well, the last thing you need is Thomas, who is also a lockdown defender, going off for 18 points. "You hope he keeps doing this," Matta said. "We're going to keep working him, that's for sure."