As Tom Izzo meticulously sifted through a season’s worth of Ohio State film, it served more as a confirmation of what he already knew about the Buckeyes than it did a lesson of new things for his Michigan State team to watch out for.
But what ended up beating his Spartans on Feb. 24 wasn’t displayed on that film, not even for a moment. It was an offensive-minded Aaron Craft.
Craft was the difference for an Ohio State team eager as ever to earn a statement win. The Spartans just happened to be the victims, as the junior point guard methodically cut through their defense while tallying a career-high 21 points and putting the Buckeyes on his back for the 68-60 win.
“He didn’t do that in the other games,” Izzo said. “I watched 23 other games on tape on them (and) I don’t think he’s ever done it. I couldn’t plan for something I never saw.”
No one else had seen it either, but once it was clear, Ohio State instantly went from being a team that was typically overmatched by ranked opponents into the one many hoped it would be before the season – a possible Final Four contender.
Craft’s offensive assault against Michigan State was a key performance for an OSU team looking to pad its NCAA Tournament résumé, but the result could be far more valuable than just the novelty of earning only its second victory in nine tries over a ranked opponent this season.
It could be the overhaul the Buckeyes have been looking for if it can somehow become consistent – that long- sought-after second reliable scoring option to complement Deshaun Thomas.
“It was great to see the ball going in for Aaron and him attacking the rim,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “I thought he was tremendous. It definitely helps our basketball team when he’s doing that because you know what you’re going to get on the other end.”
Craft has been referred to as the best defender in college basketball enough times to render that comment ordinary when it’s uttered. But he is also the unquestionable leader of his team and most recently was named the nation’s top Academic All-American on Feb. 21.
So what’s one more thing to ask from the guy who can seemingly do it all? How about being a consistent scoring threat?
“It is always out there, whether or not I am scoring as much as I should,” Craft told BSB. “We all have the ability to score on this team. Sometimes it is my night, sometimes it is someone else’s. As long as we find a way to win, it doesn’t matter.”
But it really does matter. As long as it is Craft’s night on the offensive end, it should be Ohio State’s night to at least be in position to capture a victory.
The Buckeyes’ potential was realized when Craft’s scoring was on display against the Spartans. Though Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, made only four of his 16 shot attempts from the field, the Buckeyes were still collectively good enough with Craft’s support to beat a top-five opponent.
But the question remains: Can he do it consistently?
Craft entered the Michigan State game averaging only 9.2 points per game with his previous career high of 20 points coming in the season-opening win against Albany on Nov. 11. He has failed to reach double digits in scoring in seven of the team’s 15 Big Ten games.
But in a game during which Craft’s offensive aggression translated into making 7 of 12 shots from the field – most of which were at or near the rim – and 7 of 8 free-throw attempts, the Buckeyes beat a team regarded by most experts as one of the best in the country.
If those numbers can be duplicated by Craft, in addition to what Thomas brings – he finished with 14 points despite his poor shooting performance – Ohio State once again becomes a team to be reckoned with.
“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 basket- ball team, the way we’ve picked ourselves up from a week ago (a 71-49 blowout loss 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.”
Anything Craft can add on the offensive end has long been viewed as a bonus. Perhaps the final hurdle the Buckeyes must clear before taking a big turn for the better in March is turning to their junior point guard for that consistent offensive production.
The team already does it on the other end of the floor.
“I mean, he’s the best defender in college basketball,” Matta said. "There's no doubt about it."
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