When one attempts to put into words the impact that Aaron Craft has on a basketball game, a team’s season, or a program in four short years, it proves to be an incredibly tough task. Running jokes about Craft’s tenure at Ohio State lasting the better part of a decade aside, he’s been the engine that keeps his team running, all the while saying the right things and excelling in the classroom. Ohio State basketball had seen some of its darkest days in Craft’s tenure with the team—and likely longer with losses in five out of seven January contests, including failures against bottom-dwellers Nebraska and Penn State.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Buckeyes’ fall to the bottom: Aaron Craft picked his team up as a senior leader by chipping, driving, and marching his team through two straight road wins in what were fierce environments. With those victories at Wisconsin and Iowa in the last four days, Ohio State is back in the top half of the Big Ten and back on the tracks. Look no further than the Buckeye point guard for a reason why.
It hasn’t been easy for this Buckeyes team to score all season. Deshaun Thomas leaving a year early continues to haunt this team on the offensive side of the ball as teams zone them up and no clear mid-range or post threat emerges. Players like Craft, along with Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross, who were strong complementary pieces to the offense in years past are being asked to be the go-to options. That’s life in college, and usually, players eventually figure it out as they continue to grow within their abilities. Smith Jr. has struggled mightily most of the season (shooting just 34% in conference and 27% from three point range), and Ross has disappeared at times due to his lack of defensive ability and propensity to turn over the ball when he’s forced to put it on the floor. Compound this with the fact that Craft’s fellow backcourt mate, Shannon Scott, has played incredibly uneven as well (30 assists and 21 turnovers in conference play along with just one 10+ point and 5+ assist game each since January 4th), and there’s been a lot of pressure on the red-faced senior to lead this imperfect team to wins down the stretch.
But that’s precisely what he’s done this week. Against Wisconsin, having accounted for zero points for the first 36 minutes of the game, Craft scored the team’s next seven. First, it was a confident three-point stroke behind a double screen as he lightly jogged the ball up the court. Then, it was a dash through the paint for a layup to tie it with 3:12 to go. That was followed by a trip to the foul line where he converted a pair to give the Bucks a one point lead with 90 seconds left. As Ohio State lost its composure when a ball thrown ahead to Smith Jr. for a 2-on-0 fastbreak resulted in an inexplicable turnover, it was Craft that had to win the game on defense. In the Penn State game a week prior, he overplayed D.J. Newbill’s right as he went left to hit the game-winning elbow jumper. This time, it was Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson that tried to beat Craft off the dribble. Craft would hold steady, stopping Jackson on his charge toward the paint, forcing a Jackson kickout to Sam Dekker for an off-balance three-point prayer as time expired that would go unanswered.
On Tuesday night, Craft navigated the Bucks through a first half that saw Iowa struggle mightily with their outside shooting by providing 14 points. Also in that first half, he chipped and bumped his way into four steals that led to fastbreaks and buckets for the scarlet and gray. In the second half, however, Craft had two plays that headlined the relentless force that he is on the court. The first was a lazy dribble along the sideline that Craft quickly swiped away from the Hawkeyes. Immediately recognizing Iowa’s lack of floor balance as a second defender came toward him in a trap attempt and seeing Shannon Scott streaking down the middle of the floor, No. 4 threw a lollipop one-handed over-the-head hook pass and hit Scott in stride as he coasted in for a layup. It gave the Buckeyes a nine-point lead with six minutes to play. The second came with under 90 seconds to play, immediately after a possession where Craft had turned the ball over as the shot clock shrunk. Out at the top of the key again, Craft started his drive right, using a little hand-to-hand combat to get separation from his man, took the most direct path to the basket, and got it up on the glass as he went horizontal from the contact he initiated, falling out of the air, drawing the foul, and making the hoop. It was a bucket that was needed to prevent another late collapse, and that’s exactly what Craft provided, pushing the lead from four to seven. Craft’s final stat line was one of his more dazzling: 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting, three rebounds, six assists, and six steals in 39 minutes as Matta could only afford to take him off the court for a brief moment.
In this imperfect offense with this less than desirable supporting cast at this football school, Aaron Craft led his team to 45 second-half points to beat a team that quite honestly has been better than them for most of the season. When the offense stalls late in the game with the shot clock winding down, it’s Craft that has to curl around two defenders hedging out toward him on his way to the hoop. It’s Craft that has to often finish and fall to the hardwood without a foul call for his benefit. When the defensive stop is needed to win the game, it’s Aaron that relishes in the chance to shut the other guy down and raise his arms in triumph without needing to see his team score a basket, all while the road crowd focuses their efforts on attempting to knock him off of his game.
“It was intense,” said Craft following the win against Iowa. “They got after it a little bit. But you just try to do your best to knock it all out. And the best way to get back at them is to make them go home quiet like they did (Tuesday) night.”
There was another memorable four-year player in David Lighty who Matta often said should have a statue built for him outside of the Schottenstein Center. In the Cleveland sports climate, statue is a dirty word of late, but Aaron Craft embodies what goes into that sentiment. He’s a part of the best four-year run in program history. He’s brought Thad Matta’s wildest man-to-man defensive desires to life. This is coming from a program that for a three-year run had to play 2-3 zone only to protect their highly-touted big men trio of one-and-dones in Oden, Koufos, and Mullens.
It’s the abstract of Aaron Craft that is so much more intriguing than the concrete. It’s the aura, the mentality, the toughness he has brought to Ohio State basketball that can’t be measured in points, assists, field goal percentage, or even steals. I’m all for continuing to watch and see if Craft can lead this veritable island of misfit toys to making some noise in the Big Ten and beyond. If he does, it will be his greatest achievement to date.