Ohio State Buckeyes: Aaron Craft

DAYTON, Ohio -- With less than 5 seconds left in a tied game, perhaps the best pure scorer in the country came off a pair of screens that did exactly what they were designed to do: get him open.

Deshaun Thomas called for the ball -- screamed for it, waved his hands high above the 6-foot-7 inch frame that had made him essentially unguardable for the first 39 minutes and 55 seconds of his team's second-round NCAA tournament thriller -- but the pass never came.

Instead, a 6-foot-2 point guard -- who spent most of the second half turning the ball over and missing key free throws, who was being guarded by the opposing team's tallest player, who hadn't attempted a 3-pointer all afternoon and averages just 29.3 percent from beyond the arc this season -- looked him off.

To say Aaron Craft faced pressure in the final seconds of Ohio State's 78-75 win over Iowa State Sunday is to state the incredibly obvious, but that pressure wouldn't have come solely from Buckeyes fans, who would have surely blamed him for a heartbreaking second-round upset loss. Craft would have had one unhappy teammate, too.

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DAYTON, Ohio -- Quick thoughts on Ohio State's 78-75 win over Iowa State.

Overview: In a matchup between one of the nation's best and most entertaining offenses, and one of the nation's most brutal and most finely tuned defenses, it was only fitting the game came down to the final possession.

And then Aaron Craft redeemed himself.

The Buckeyes and their point guard survived a sweaty-palmed nightmare of a second half, and a flurry of huge plays in a 13-point Iowa State comeback, in time to allow Craft to back up his defender with the clock winding and the game tied at 75. Rather than driving, Craft took a 3 -- it looked like another in a series of uncharacteristically poor decisions -- but it was true, it splashed, and Craft held up his hand on the follow-through as the rest of his teammates went nuts.

Ohio State had survived.

Turning point: Even at the 11:46 mark in the second half, Ohio State still couldn't pull away -- Tyrus McGee made a brilliant drop-off to Melvin Ejim, who eventually finished with a dunk, and Iowa State closed yet another lead to just one point, 52-51. After a Thad Matta timeout, Ohio State sorted through ISU's 2-3 zone and found Deshaun Thomas for a corner 3. The next four OSU possessions went like this: A LaQuinton Ross fast-break layup (thanks to a Thomas steal), Ross for 3, two Ross free throws, and yet another Ross 3. By the time it was over, the Buckeyes led 65-53.

It looked like Ohio State was ready to hammer home yet another win, their 10th straight since mid-February … which is precisely when Iowa State came alive once more. Craft turned the ball over twice and missed the front end of two straight one-and-ones, and Iowa State recovered with a trademark flurry of baskets -- two 3s, a McGee layup, and a Korie Lucious foul and finish that tied the game at 69 with 3:53 left to play.

The game swung in every direction in the final moments -- including a pivotal and questionable charge call against ISU -- and we didn't have our outcome until Craft wound the final 30 seconds to their last possible daylight before making the 3 that will likely become his signature play as an Ohio State Buckeye.

Key player: Ross. Were it not for Ross' flurry of scores in the second half -- he provided the secondary scoring Ohio State desperately needs -- it's not unfair to think the Cyclones' eventual spurt would have put Ohio State in a hole from which they couldn't have recovered. Ross finished with 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field, including 3-of-5 from 3.

Key stat: The Cyclones made just 11 2-point field goals on the day but compensated by hitting 12 of their 25 3-point field goal attempts -- by far the best indication that this was a game they could -- if not should -- have won. Ohio State just … survived. What can you do?

What's next: The Buckeyes avoid being added to the list of West Region favorites undone by double-digit seeds and now look out on a comparably wide-open path to the Final Four when they travel to Los Angeles Thursday. Iowa State ends its second straight tournament in the second round, no doubt disappointed but also encouraged about the program's bright and sure to be entertaining future under third-year coach Fred Hoiberg.

Podcast: Aaron Craft on 'SVP & Russillo'

February, 26, 2013
Ohio State guard Aaron Craft chats about his big game against Michigan State, his defensive intensity, the value of being one of the most experienced players in the Big Ten and the difficulty of playing in such a competitive conference. Listen here Listen

Dual-threat Craft changes Buckeyes

February, 24, 2013
Aaron CraftAP Photo/Jay LaPreteThe 21 points Aaron Craft scored against the Spartans was a collegiate career high for the guard.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The rosy-cheeked aggression is nothing new.

The difference was where Aaron Craft was channeling that famous energy.

The Ohio State junior has built his reputation largely on the strength of his relentless, pesky approach on defense. Michigan State can once again attest that nothing has changed on that end of the floor. But in something of a surprise to the No. 4 Spartans, Craft went after the rim and the lane the same way he normally would a ball-handler. He made himself just as much of a nuisance offensively in a 68-60 win at Value City Arena that offered a reminder that No. 18 Ohio State shouldn’t be written off quite yet.

“It was great to see the ball going in for him and him attacking the rim,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. “I thought he was tremendous today. It definitely helps our basketball team when he’s doing that, because you know what you’re going to get on the other end.

“I mean, he’s the best defender in college basketball, there’s no question about it.”

There were some lingering doubts about how much scoring Craft could supply to complement the consistent defense, but he was certainly the most productive offensive player on the court on Sunday afternoon in one of Ohio State’s last chances to make a statement and build momentum before the postseason.

The Spartans had no answer for the dual-threat Craft, who made it look routine to get to the basket off the dribble. He rarely took a wrong step on the pick-and-roll, either finishing on his own or setting up teammates for one of his six assists. He won one-on-one matchups to get easy finishes, dropped in contested attempts in traffic, and was almost perfect from the free-throw line on the way to a game-high 21 points.

As recently as a week ago Ohio State was reeling from a blowout loss at Wisconsin and Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, was struggling with his shot. The Buckeyes couldn't have needed Craft to be at his best offensively more than this game. Considering that his previous career high had come against Albany in the season opener, Craft might never have been better with the ball in his hands than he was against the Spartans.

“Give Craft credit, he tore us apart in the second half,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “It was Aaron Craft, he beat us every way he could beat us.

“Aaron Craft was more aggressive than I’ve ever seen him as a scorer, and give him credit for that. … I couldn’t plan for something I’ve never seen before.”

The Buckeyes would obviously be more formidable if Craft had that part of his game more regularly; although his defense has already helped keep an inconsistent team, that relies heavily on Thomas, afloat.

Craft still gave Ohio State everything it has come to expect from him. He was credited with only one steal, but he helped fluster Keith Appling as Michigan State’s leading scorer hit just one of his six shots and finished with three points. Craft was a fixture on the floor as he threw his body around for loose balls -- notably securing a crucial possession late in the game in a scrum under the Ohio State basket. He pushed all the right buttons on the floor, knowing just when to push the tempo or slow it down to let his teammates regroup.

But he apparently realized that the Buckeyes needed him to add something extra to allow Ohio State to hang around in the Big Ten race a little longer.

“The biggest thing that we get from a game like this is a win against a great opponent,” Craft said. “This is big for this basketball team, the way we’ve picked ourselves up from a week ago [at Wisconsin] when we weren’t ready to go. Hopefully we can continue to build off this.

“If it takes [me scoring] -- I don’t care who is scoring, who is putting the ball in the bucket as long as we come out with more points.”

Collectively, that was the Buckeyes. And they’re clearly a more dangerous team when Craft is pacing the individuals.

Rapid Reaction: Ohio St 68, Michigan St 60

February, 24, 2013

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Quick thoughts following Ohio State's second-half surge on the way to a critical Big Ten victory over Michigan State on Sunday afternoon at Value City Arena.

Overview: Flawed as it may be and as painful as it can look for Ohio State at times, it proved it can still handle its business against one of the best teams in the country.

The Buckeyes continued to take questionable shots, were sometimes overmatched in the post and suffered through occasional lapses on both ends of the floor.

But when they put everything together, even if just for a half, they’re capable of big runs on offense, stretches of dominant defense and big wins like the 68-60 decision it picked up against No. 4 Michigan State.

The Buckeyes had to deal with a slow start from the Big Ten’s leading scorer as Deshaun Thomas struggled to find his rhythm and chipped in just two points in the first half. They also had to overcome a physical disadvantage in the post, with Adreian Payne making life difficult with 10 first-half rebounds and the Spartans scoring often and easily in the paint.

But the issues that have popped up throughout the season and hampered them in the first half started disappearing down the stretch for the Buckeyes. Aaron Craft helped shoulder some of the scoring load until Thomas got rolling. As the Ohio State defense on the perimeter got tighter, the Spartans found it more difficult to assert themselves inside.

And after looking like they might slide out of the Big Ten race for good, the Buckeyes climbed right back into the picture with one of their biggest victories of the year.

Turning point: Lenzelle Smith couldn’t get settled into his sweet spot for more than a half. But once he finally got a look from the place he shot jumpers during pregame while his teammates were still in the locker room, the junior guard buried it and energized a home crowd that had been quiet for much of the afternoon.

The 3-pointer from the right corner with 13:55 left in the game also put the Buckeyes back on top. It helped erase a deficit that had been as high as nine points in the second half and ignited a 15-3 run that knocked the Spartans on their heels and handed them a second consecutive Big Ten loss.

Key player: The focus will always be on his defense, but when the team needed a lift on offense Craft reminded everybody that he can be a nuisance there as well.

The Spartans had a tough time keeping the junior guard in front and out of the lane, and Craft routinely exploited them with one of his most aggressive offensive performances of the season. At times this year Craft has been able to get to the rim but was unable to finish. That wasn’t an issue against Michigan State as he routinely capitalized from close range on the way to a game-high 21 points.

Key stat: The Spartans gave Craft two extra chances to set a new career high, and he took advantage with a pair of free throws with less than a second left and the outcome decided. The point guard had only scored 20 points in a game previously against Albany, which certainly doesn't have the reputation the Spartans brought with them to Value City Arena. Craft's ability to add balance to the offense was critical and tipped the scales for the Buckeyes in a game where Thomas didn't have his best stuff.

Miscellaneous: Thomas became the 25th player in Ohio State history to score 1,000 points and pull down 500 rebounds, joining the list with his third board midway through the first half on Sunday. ... The Buckeyes have won 10 conference games for the past eight seasons, extending the longest streak the program has ever put together. ... The Spartans came into the game with a 4-3 record against teams currently ranked in the Top 25. ... The previous three meetings between the programs had all been decided by four points or fewer. ... Izzo dropped to 21-12 against the Buckeyes.

Next up: Halfway though a brutal gauntlet of games in the Big Ten, the Spartans are in a hole after dropping a home date to Indiana earlier in the week. Michigan State has some time to recover, but things don’t get any easier when they return to the court on Sunday on the road at rival Michigan, with Wisconsin closing out the four-game stretch against ranked opponents on March 7.

The sprint to the end of the regular season doesn’t look nearly as difficult overall for the Buckeyes, despite a challenging trip to Indiana looming on March 5. Ohio State sandwiches that game with a trip to Northwestern on Thursday and a home date with Illinois before the Big Ten tournament starts.

3-Pointer: Ohio State 83, Walsh 71 

October, 31, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Quick hitters from Ohio State's exhibition win Tuesday night over Walsh at Value City Arena:

For starters: Thad Matta did plenty of tinkering with the rotation, and he didn't even stick with the same first unit for both halves of the exhibition against Walsh.

But the Buckeyes coach had to send out a starting five, and the group included one mild surprise: LaQuinton Ross got the nod over Sam Thompson. The sophomore forward was solid on both ends of the floor and finished with 13 points and 5 rebounds in 21 minutes of action, while Thompson was effective as well, with 11 points and 4 assists -- and he wound up with more playing time.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Quick-hitters with the Ohio State basketball team, which hosted its media day on Thursday ahead of the first practice of the preseason.

Back on point: Aaron Craft hadn't taken two weeks off since he was in middle school, and if it had been solely up to him, that streak would still be alive.

[+] EnlargeCraft
Greg Bartram/US PresswireThe Bucks are hoping a healthier Aaron Craft can deliver more offense this season.
But surgery on his nagging ankle injury in June and the cast that was subsequently slapped on it kept the tireless Ohio State point guard off his feet and forced him to actually take a bit off time to rest his body over the summer. And while Craft recognized the value of that recovery time and admitted he came back rejuvenated, he still doesn't seem eager to take another vacation moving forward.

"I couldn’t do anything because I was in a cast, so that was very interesting and challenging for me, watching these guys work out and shoot and play," Craft said. "That was probably the toughest thing. Getting back, it was good for my entire body to take time off. I wouldn’t have done that on my own.

"I felt reenergized and ready to go when I got back, and ultimately it was probably the best thing for me."

The relentless junior has never been accused of running low on energy, and a fresher, healthier version of Craft could make life even more difficult for opponents battling the lockdown defender on the offensive end.

The Buckeyes are likely counting on him to provide a bit more scoring when they have the ball as well as they try to replace the production of Jared Sullinger and William Buford, and it certainly won't hurt if Craft doesn't have to spend much time this season limping from the pain that used to shoot through his ankle.

"The rest probably helped him," coach Thad Matta said. "He’s a guy that doesn’t like to take days off, when he’s in here he’s going 100 miles an hour. From that perspective, it’s probably good.

"I haven’t noticed [a change in his approach], what I have noticed is he doesn’t trip on his foot and then limp for the next minute. He seems to be perfectly fine."

Old hands: The Buckeyes aren't exactly loaded with seniors.

But they've got one more of those upperclassmen than they do freshmen with only one of the latter on the roster, which might actually qualify Ohio State as a veteran outfit. And that could make for a much smoother experience when the Buckeyes hit the practice court as a full unit on Friday.

"It’s very valuable," junior Deshaun Thomas said. "We all know what coach Matta wants out of us in practice, and we’ve got one freshmen, so the other guys should already know what he wants and what it takes to win.

"Coach Matta preaches toughness. Once you’re out there in a drill and you show him you’re doing it right, he’ll cut the drill short. Everybody on this team should know what he wants and give it their all. We don’t have to help a lot of freshmen pick it up and understand what to do, so everybody should know what’s expected tomorrow."

High five: Matta didn't tip his hand on a starting lineup, preferring instead to let practice play out and then go from there.

But it's no secret how he'll figure out that group when the time comes.

"I told them the other day, I’m going to start the five best defenders," Matta said. "I think from the standpoint of trying to get those guys to understand where I’m coming from, with what we have, I think we’ll have great depth this year.

"There’s a lot of quality out there, and I’m excited to see these guys compete in four-day increments as we’re getting ready to practice."
At his school, Aaron Craft had his share of company.

Overall, the Ohio State athletic department put 58 student-athletes on the Big Ten Distinguished Scholars list.

But on his team, Craft was all by himself. And that would have been the case regardless of whether the junior was wearing a Buckeyes uniform or that of any other team in the conference.

On Wednesday the league announced all the athletes that fit the criteria for its elite honor roll, which requires a 3.7 grade point average for letterwinners in at least their second year at the school. Craft was the only men's basketball player in the Big Ten to make the cut -- adding one more impressive entry to his growing resume with the program.

Other notable numbers for the Buckeyes:

  • Five student-athletes posted perfect 4.0 GPAs -- Nina Passen (field hockey), Michael Newburger (men's gymnastics), Melissa Rennie (softball), Katie Simonton (softball), Chelsea Aton (synchronized swimming)
  • Women's swimming and diving had eight representatives, tops in the athletic department
  • Women's soccer and fencing each had five players honored by the league

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The toughness has never been in question.

The work ethic is becoming a thing of legend.

But in a way, Aaron Craft had to dial both of those back this summer to perhaps take another step forward heading into his junior season with Ohio State. It also apparently took some persuading for the Buckeyes point guard to finally agree to a recent surgery to remove a bone chip in his left ankle, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
“His attitude was, ‘I want to get better this summer,’ ” Craft's father, John, told the paper. “That’s admirable, but I told him, 'You’ve got to look at the big picture. You owe it to the team to be ready for them in August.' "

The procedure should allow Craft to be just fine by then, and with the issue taken care of in his ankle, he could be ready to take things to another level without having to worry about the stinging pain that often produced a limp during games last season.

According to the Dispatch, Craft is scheduled to have his cast removed Tuesday and will begin a rehabilitation process that could have him ready to resume working out at full speed in three or four weeks.


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