Keeping Score

Ohio State’s Aaron Craft: Meet the Pest of the Final Four

In a world where parents push their kids to score, score, score, Aaron Craft's dad raised him on defense.

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Gene J. Puskar / AP

Ohio State's Aaron Craft, right, knocks the ball out of the hands of Gonzaga guard David Stockton (11) during the first half of an East Regional NCAA tournament third-round college basketball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, March 17, 2012.

New Orleans

It’s just instinct, really: American parents want their children to score. Because in sports, scoring points, or goals, or touchdowns, gets you attention. And with attention, your kid will make the youth league All-Star team, then his high school team, and maybe even receive an athletic scholarship for college. That will save you, what, a couple of hundred grand these days?

Growing up in Findlay, Ohio, Aaron Craft didn’t do a ton of scoring. “I wasn’t the best offensive player when I was younger,” Craft, the sophomore starting point guard for Ohio State, told TIME on Friday afternoon while sitting on a golf cart in the bowels of the Superdome, waiting to be shuttled to a Final Four press conference. But thanks to the teachings of his father, John, a high-school coach who stressed the finer points of defense to his son rather than prodding him to be a ball hog, Craft and the Ohio State are two wins away from the school’s first national title since 1960. The Buckeyes face Kansas in tonight’s second national semifinal. “It all stems from him,” says Craft, one of the best defenders in the country, when talking about his dad.

The Craft family offers a valuable lesson. You can help your child thrive in sports, without obsessing over the usual signals of athletic success, like scoring points.

For years, John Craft coached defense for the Fostoria (Ohio) High School football team. On Mondays and Thursdays, he’d have his linebackers over at the house to watch game film. Aaron, as a second and third grader, would sit on these meetings. “Those sessions really helped give Aaron a defensive mindset,” says John. “It stuck with him.”

Around the same time, John was also coaching junior high school basketball. Aaron, still in elementary school, often tagged along to practices. “He’s get pretty bored just shooing around on the side,” John says. So Aaron, with his dad’s encouragement, would hop in line during defensive drills. The older boys were more than happy than Aaron joined them. The more Aaron took part in this drudgery, the less they would have to. Putting the ball in the basket is fun. Playing defense isn’t.

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One drill, which Aaron relished, was grueling: John made his players get into a defensive stance, and slide back and forth across the foul lane while holding onto bricks. “That was all about mental toughness,” says Aaron. John instructed the kids hold their arms out. A ref once told him that if a kid ran into a screen with extended arms, and bumped the screener with his waist or lower body, officials would not call a foul. But if a player shoved the screener with his hands, the ref would be more likely blow the whistle. “If you watch Aaron now,” John says, “you’ll still see him fight through picks with his hands out.”

As Aaron started playing organized basketball, father and son would talk defense on the car rides to practices and games. “Once he had some success with it in the fourth, fifth, sixth grade, that made a huge difference,” John says. “That’s such a crucial age. Talking about it only goes so far. This is the ‘show me the money’ generation. He started getting pats on the back, and accolades for playing good defense. He liked that.”

Even on the high school summer basketball circuit, in which defense is typically an afterthought, Craft worked hard to stop his man. This effort shocked his teammates. “I was like, ‘man, this is the best defender I’ve ever played with,'” says Ohio State forward J.D. Weatherspoon, who played AAU ball with Craft. “He was in love with defense.” Craft asks Ohio State video coordinator Greg Paulus, a former Duke point guard, to prepare him DVDs that highlight the habits of his next defensive assignment. He digests them back in his dorm room. “That shows the rest of our guys the importance of preparation,” Paulus says.

Part of the attraction of defense, Craft says, is control. “Some nights, you’re going to struggle shooting,” says Craft, a pre-med student with a 3.88 GPA. (He’s gotten all As since kindergarten, except for a B+ in chemistry last year. He’s still ticked about it.) “You’re just going to be off. But your shots don’t need to fall to be a good defender. You can always put in the effort.”

Against Kansas, who beat Ohio State in December, 78-67 (the Buckeyes’ best player, future NBA first-round pick Jared Sullinger, missed the game with back spasms) Craft will draw Jayhawks point guard Tyshawn Taylor. “When Tyshawn has the ball, he was to put pressure on Craft,” says Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend. “Drive right at him, run him into screens, things like that.” Shaking Craft won’t be easy. “He’s a pest,” says Weatherspoon. “He’s like an insect that won’t go away. He won’t stop biting you.”

Dad deserves some credit for raising such an annoying son (plus a brave one — Craft’s brother, Brandon, was deployed to Afghanistan with his army unit last week). “Once Aaron made the choice that he wanted to be a great basketball player, that he wanted to make defense is priority, sure, at times I had to remind him that he had to spend more time improving his game,” says John, who still teaches at Fostoria High School. “But I didn’t do that until he made that choice. If you push kids into something they don’t like, they’ll learn to hate you. I know for sure that Aaron is living his dream.”

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