During his four-year tenure at Ohio State, former point guard Aaron Craft became a symbol of scrappiness and aggressiveness within the program.
Since his graduation in 2014, Craft has bounced around Europe, playing in both France and Italy while trying to continue his professional basketball dream. Since 2017, Craft has been a key member for the Ohio State alumni team, Carmen’s Crew, in The Basketball Tournament, an annual single-elimination professional basketball tournament which kicked off Saturday.
In October, Craft announced his intentions to retire from professional basketball following the Lega Serie A season in order to begin medical school and train to become a doctor. With his retirement on the horizon, Carmen’s Crew looks to send Craft out as a back-to-back TBT champion.
“I don’t want to spend time overthinking and overanalyzing,” Craft said. “For me, it’s just going out here and playing with my family, my brothers, and trying to do everything I can to win, like I always do, and seeing the results at the end.”
Last year, Carmen’s Crew became the first team in tournament history to beat Overseas Elite, who won four consecutive TBT championships from 2015-2018, en route to their first TBT title since their creation in 2017. Craft and former Ohio State guard William Buford earned All-Tournament honors, while Buford also added the tournament’s MVP award with an average of 17.8 points per game.
Buford said his focus is more towards defending their title, rather than adding another MVP.
“I’m going to go out this year and just try to win,” Buford said. “If I win MVP, I get it, but if not, I just want to win.”
This year, Carmen’s Crew may have an easier path to the title as the tournament has a modified look that brings the typically more than 64-team field down to 24 due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four teams have seen cases of COVID-19 among their players, leading to their disqualification or replacement from the tournament. Carmen’s Crew head coach Jared Sullinger said that members began getting tested before official TBT tests so that they could identify positive tests and make roster adjustments before the team would face possible disqualification.
“That just shows what type of basketball team we have,” Sullinger said. “Just selfless basketball players that are willing to put themselves to the side for the good of the team.”
In terms of basketball, Overseas Elite remains a major threat to Carmen’s Crew’s repeat efforts as they added former seven-time NBA All-Star Joe Johnson. Carmen’s Crew assistant coach Evan Turner said that he’s excited to see more former NBA guys compete in the tournament.
“I think it should be cool,” Turner said. “I’ve been a big fan of ‘Iso’ Joe. It’ll be fun and make for great TV, and we’re looking forward to it as well.”
Carmen’s Crew also added some new talent this summer as they welcomed two more members from the 2012 Final Four squad, adding former Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith and forward DeShaun Thomas to the roster.
The addition of Thomas comes with big expectations as Sullinger said that Thomas’ scoring skill set will help Carmen’s Crew in late-game situations and during the Elam Ending of games, which is where the teams play to eight points past the leading team’s score, rather than a time requirement.
“He’s an Elam ender,” Sullinger said. “That’s what he does, he scores.”
Former Buckeye guard and Carmen’s Crew member David Lighty said that the addition of Thomas will also help open up shooting specialists like Jon Diebler and Buford, thanks to Thomas’ presence in the offense.
“You have to pick your poison,” Lighty said. “You’ve got a shooter, Diebler, in the corner. You’ve got a shooter, Buford, in the corner and you got DeShaun Thomas in a pick-n-roll up top. What’re you going to do?”
Smith said he’s excited to get the opportunity to share the floor with his former college teammates and pointed out that despite nearing the end of his basketball career, not much has changed in Craft’s game since they shared the floor.
“What you see is pretty much what you’re going to get,” Smith said. “He hasn’t lost a beat. It’s still the same hustle, energy, vocals, tenacity. Same Craft, man.”
While Carmen’s Crew gears up for an emotional title defense, Sullinger is hoping to send Craft off as a winner.
“The game is going to miss Aaron Craft. Jared Sullinger is going to miss Aaron Craft. I’m pretty sure Carmen’s Crew is going to miss Aaron Craft, as well.” Sullinger said. “This one is going to hurt. I might cry if we win.”
Carmen’s Crew tips off their title defense Wednesday at 4 p.m. against the University of Illinois’ alumni team, House of Paign.