Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor
CHICAGO-In Aaron Craft’s sack of basketball weaponry, scoring prowess sits at the bottom, rarely showcased while being overshadowed by defensive ability and on-court leadership. There’s something about playing Michigan State, though, that brings out the junior guard’s talent for putting the ball in the basket.
Behind a 20-point outburst on 13 shots from its floor leader, Ohio State bested the Spartans, 61-58, in a slugfest of Big Ten powers in the semifinals of the conference’s tournament at the United Center in Chicago Saturday afternoon. The offensively-centered display from Craft comes roughly three weeks after he poured in 21 points in an upset of then-No. 4 ranked MSU in Columbus Feb. 24.
“I don’t know what it is,” said OSU coach Thad Matta of Craft’s scoring performances against the Spartans. “It’s a good thing, because as you guys know, they’ve usually been at the top of the league. I thought he was tremendous.”
Craft’s ball-poking skills were evident against MSU, too-he had four steals-and the bulldog-type defender understands that’s what he is going to be known for. He enjoys it. But being the leading scorer in a bout that pushed the No. 10-ranked Buckeyes into the tournament championship game of the nation’s best conference pleases Craft just the same.
“I’m probably going to be known as a defensive player and I have no problem with that, none at all. But when I can knock down some shots, it helps our team. It’s not just about me trying to earn a name for myself, it helps our team be better. That’s what it’s all about,” Craft said, who has three 20-point games in his career.
The array of shots hit by Craft didn’t come until after halftime Saturday, though. His first attempt of the game fell short of the rim and the net. Craft had just two points in the opening 20 minutes of play with OSU trailing, 29-28.
“My first shot was an air ball, so that wasn’t the greatest start to the game. I just tried to stay confident in myself and my teammates believed in me and that helps a lot,” Craft said.
Once the contest’s second act began, the rosy-cheeked scoring assassin broke out.
Craft hit a scooping, left-handed layup to give OSU its first basket of the second half and tie the game, 30-30. On the following MSU possession, he stole the ball from Spartan junior point guard Keith Appling before finding junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. for a layup in transition. His next steal-a tap of the ball to himself on a floating MSU inbounds pass into the backcourt-came directly after that assist. This time, he did it all himself, floating a layup in over the Spartan’s floor leader.
“A couple guys came up and said you have to keep being aggressive like you did the last time we played them. I got some open looks, got some easy buckets and obviously, knocked down some pull-ups,” Craft said.
OSU scored 33 points in the second half, 18 of which came from Craft. Five layups, two jumpers, a 3-pointer and a free throw. Six of those made shots came with the scoring margin at two points or less. His final two field goals of the game propelled the Buckeyes to their biggest lead of the game: eight points with 7:22 remaining.
“He got to the middle, made some jump shots and hit a three, the defense couldn’t guard him after that,” said sophomore guard Shannon Scott.
With the game in doubt, it was the Buckeyes’ go-to scorer that came through. Junior forward Deshaun Thomas scored OSU’s last three points to all-but secure a victory. It was Craft, however, that allowed the Buckeyes to be in a position to secure a win.
“He looked like me out there,” a grinning Thomas said, who led the Big Ten in scoring in the regular season.
While many in attendance at the United Center were surprised with Craft’s point total, the junior’s teammates weren’t.
“Not at all. I’ve known Aaron for three years now and we’ve seen Aaron do this before. It’s just now that you guys are seeing it in a game,” redshirt senior forward Evan Ravenel said.
While Craft’s offensive displays against MSU are outliers in his season-he averages 9.6 points on the year-he’s been one of the Buckeyes best options during the team’s seven-game winning streak. Craft scored 15 points in OSU’s shocking win at Indiana March 5 and had 14 against Illinois March 10.
Craft has been admittedly more offensively minded of late. He and assistant coach Chris Jent have been working to fix a hitch in his shot. It’s slowly starting to go away, but his form is still far from fundamentally sound.
“We’ve put in a lot of time, a lot of effort. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not, so we’re continuing to work on it. As long as it feels good, I don’t care what it looks like,” Craft said.
When the hitch isn’t there, Craft has proven to be a dominant force on the offensive side of the court.
“When he gets his shot going, he’s impossible to stop, really,” Scott said.
Thanks in part to Craft’s effort Saturday, OSU will face Wisconsin, which upset No. 1 seed Indiana, Sunday afternoon for the Big Ten tournament title. If the Buckeyes are going to be successful against the Badgers and for the rest of March, Craft will likely need to perform similarly to the way he has against MSU. Craft’s teammates expect nothing less.
“I told him as soon as the game was over, bring that tomorrow. Whatever you did last night and this morning, do it again,” Smith Jr. said.
OSU and Wisconsin are set to tip-off at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the United Center in Chicago. The Buckeyes, playing in their third-straight conference championship game, will be trying to win their fourth Big Ten tournament title under Matta.