Local Sports

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

College Basketball: Forces on defense

AP Basketball Writer

Most kids who have big dreams picture themselves hitting the winning shot in the big game, doing an imaginary countdown before hoisting toward the backyard basket.

Ohio State guard Aaron Craft's countdown had an alternative slant.

"I think we know I'm a defensive guy," Craft said after his last-second shot against Iowa State sent the Buckeyes to the West Region semifinals. "So I think I'm in the backyard (saying) three, two, one, taking a charge, something like that."

College basketball has few true defensive stoppers, players who can alter a game without scoring a point.

The opening West Region semifinal at Staples Center on Thursday night will have two: Craft and Arizona's Nick Johnson.

Athletic, active guards, Craft and Johnson have been disruptive forces all season, tasked with slowing the opposing team's best perimeter players, doing just that more often than not.

They are the main cogs to their teams' defensive success and thrive on it.

"I take that personally, knowing that I'm the main defensive guy and my energy really affects the team," Johnson said. "I'm taking it personally upon myself to do it every single game and show my team I'm playing really, really hard. It's contagious."

The nephew of late Boston Celtics guard Dennis Johnson -- another player noted for his defensive prowess -- Johnson arrived in Tucson as a rare high school prospect who enjoyed playing defense.

He's lived up to that reputation in two years at Arizona, becoming the defensive engine for the Wildcats this season as a sophomore.

A freakishly athletic 6-foot-3, Johnson has exceptional lateral quickness and springy legs that allow him to soar in for blocks when opposing players least expect it. San Diego State's Chase Tapley found that out in the championship game of the Diamondhead Classic, when Johnson swatted away what appeared to be an uncontested layup at the buzzer to secure the Wildcats' title on Christmas night.

After a midseason funk, Johnson has come alive again at the end of the season, starting with a strong performance against Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson in the regular-season finale.

Johnson then hounded Colorado's Spencer Dinwiddie in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, limiting the Buffaloes' leading scorer to 4 of 12 shooting, and had an emphatic block on a 3-point attempt by Askia Booker in the closing seconds.

Though the Wildcats lost to UCLA in the Pac-12 semifinals, Johnson took Bruins point guard Larry Drew II almost entirely out of the game, helping to force him to miss all five of his shots in a scoreless night.

In the NCAA tournament, Johnson had the primary assignment on Belmont's Ian Clark in Arizona's opening game and helped hold the nation's best 3-point shooter (46 percent) to 3-of-8 shooting from the arc and made him work hard for his 21 points.

Against Harvard, Johnson held the Crimson's leading scorer to eight points on 1-of-11 shooting in Arizona's runaway into the Sweet 16.

"With Nick Johnson, he has become our team's best perimeter defender," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "He has all the athletic talent. He has the mindset to be great. I believe one day he will be an elite defender."

Craft may already be there.

The Big Ten defensive player of the year last season, he was the catalyst to the Buckeyes' run to the Final Four in New Orleans.

Even though he was edged by Indiana's Victor Oladipo as the conference's defensive player of the year this season, Craft may have been even better on the defensive end than he was a year ago.

"I think Victor Oladipo is a tremendous, outstanding, awesome defender, one of the best I've ever seen," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "But Aaron Craft is in another whole, other world when it comes to defense..."

Subscribe to The Courier.