Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Aaron Craft knows the Ohio State basketball team needs another scorer. Outside of junior forward Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes don’t have another proven option to put the ball in the hole on a consistent basis.
Against Albany Sunday, Craft tried – and succeeded – in fulfilling that void. He hit a career-high five 3-pointers on his way to 20 points and seven assists in OSU’s 82-60 victory.
To be fair, fellow junior guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. also chipped in 18 points and sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross scored 10 in addition to Thomas’ 19, but Craft was the most consistent option.
It’s something Matta hinted was coming in the preseason and Craft said he’s been working on all summer.
“He spent a lot of time in the gymnasium,” Matta said. “Aaron is such a smart kid. He knows what this team needs and having another guy that can put the ball in the basket is obviously something this team needs.”
Before the game, Craft warmed up differently than he has in previous years. Instead of taking set shots, the vast majority of his pregame reps simulated a situation where he’d come off a screen, catch the ball in stride and fire up a quick jumper.
The junior guard was comfortable taking shots from standstill positions last year, but the ability to catch and shoot coming off screens is something Craft said adds another dimension to his game.
“That was the biggest thing we tried to work on, just shooting behind screens and things like that,” Craft said. “Teammates got to trust me to shoot the ball as well. So throughout the summer, throughout the fall, just trying to get their confidence in me as well.”
Albany coach Will Brown said that if Craft can score like he did Sunday, it makes the Buckeyes a different animal offensively.
“Like I said to my staff coming into the game, if Craft hits five or six threes then it wasn’t meant to be, and sure enough he hit five threes. You know he’s going to play in the NBA for 10 years,” Brown said. “If Craft is scoring on that level he did tonight – I know it will be a lot tougher in the Big Ten – but he just keeps getting better every year. He’s already the best defensive guard in the country.”
The Buckeyes are looking for more than just another scoring option though. With the departure of former Buckeye big man Jared Sullinger to the NBA, Matta is searching for a dominant presence inside. Senior forward Evan Ravenel and sophomore forward Amir Williams received the most playing time Sunday, but did not have much production.
In a combined 31 minutes of playing time, the pair collaborated for zero points and six rebounds.
“We were on them at halftime for rebounding. Amir and Evan played 20 minutes in the first half and had a combined three rebounds,” said Matta, who added he would like to see them get more involved offensively.
Brown said the center position is key to the Buckeyes’ future.
“I think if they get any consistency from the five spot, the center spot, they can go very, very far this year,” he said.
It might not be safe to take too much away from the Buckeyes’ performance Sunday, though. Albany plays in the America East Conference and, as Brown openly admitted, is nowhere near the Buckeyes in terms of talent and athleticism.
“(OSU’s) got McDonald’s All-Americans coming off the bench,” he said. “My guys go to McDonald’s to eat.”
OSU is scheduled to play Rhode Island on Saturday in Uncasville, Conn., at 5 p.m.