Aside from the early-morning meetings to pore over scouting reports, being a college basketball walk-on must be rather enjoyable. Games are typically stress-free affairs, save perhaps receiving garbage time minutes at the end of matchups long since decided, so you can cheer for your teammates from the courtside perch, make funny faces after vicious dunks and sip some Gatorade during timeouts.
The work ratchets up during practice, when scout-team players are responsible for challenging the regulars and, when particularly tough opponents lie ahead, changing their identity.
“Scouts are always kind of fun, taking on the roles of the other starters,” sophomore guard Conner Lipinski said, about as ho-hum as someone can be before declaring oneself as someone else. “This week I was Aaron Craft.”
With junior Varun Ram willing himself into the rotation thanks mainly to his pesky defensive intensity, Lipinski has assumed the unique practice task of becoming the opposing point guard. Before Maryland’s opener against Connecticut, he was Shabazz Napier. This week, with fifth-ranked Ohio State looming Wednesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Lipinski is Craft, widely regarded as one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders.
“The coaches told me he was a really good defender, he leads the team, so that was really fun,” Lipinski said.
Ohio State leads the country in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.com, but everything starts with Craft. He was a preseason all-American selection by several news outlets, the 2012 Big Ten defensive player of the year and owns three of the program’s single-season steals records.
“Obviously he’s a really good defender,” said forward Evan Smotrycz, a Michigan transfer who has faced Ohio State six times. “They’ve got some good pieces. But we play hard in practice every day, and I definitely have confidence in Dez [Wells] and the other guards to get us into our stuff.”
This season, through the Buckeyes’ undefeated start, Craft has averaged a 4.3 steal rate, which ranks sixth in the conference. Perhaps even more concerning for Coach Mark Turgeon and his back court of turnover-prone guards? Ohio State junior Shannon Scott is third with a 4.8 rate.
“Well he’s good defensively, so it’s a big concern,” Turgeon said of Craft. “Our guys have gotten better. We’ve worked on it, we’ve got some pressure releases. It’s not only Craft, it’s Scott, too. He gets in you. Plus it’s the first road game. There’s a lot of variables that have come in.”
Maryland ranks 250th nationally in turnover percentage, as exactly one-fifth of its possessions result in a giveaway. Wells and freshman Roddy Peters are committing turnovers at an absurdly high rate – 22.4 and 34.7 percent of possessions, respectively. The Terps need composed efforts from both point guards, regardless of whether Craft or Scott defends them.
“Everybody’s got to be able to run their sets and handle it the best they can,” Turgeon said. “They’re going to test us. But we knew that when the schedule came out. We’re much more prepared today than we were a month ago. I’m looking forward to seeing where we are against a big-time team in a big-time environment.”
Hearing Turgeon speak about the challenge ahead, he might have wished he had two Varun Rams for scout-team work this week.
“It’s been Conner Lipinski,” he said, when asked about how well Ram had simulated Craft. “So…not a great one.”