Craft Takes Over as Most Outstanding Player in Chicago
By Brandon Castel
CHICAGO — Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson made four of his 10 shots on Sunday and only turned the ball over once. That’s considering a booming day for anyone facing Ohio State’s Aaron Craft.
Photo by Jim Davidson
On Saturday night, Craft completely befuddled and neutralized one of the best point guards in the Big Ten. He took Keith Appling out of his game and forced the Michigan State junior to play what amounted to a head match with one of the most cunning defenders the conference has ever seen.
Instead of facilitating a well-run offense for Tom Izzo and the Spartans, Appling appeared determined to prove he could shake Craft and the demons that have haunted him since his Buckeye counterpart hung 21 on Michigan State in Columbus.
Appling buried his first two threes to start the game, then promptly missed 11 of his next 15 shots as Michigan State fell, 61-58, to the Buckeyes in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
“I’ve been in this league for nine years and I’ve never seen a guy make an impact on a basketball team like he does on the defensive end,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said earlier in the week.
He certainly made his presence felt in Chicago over the weekend, and for that Craft was awarded with the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award on Sunday after the Buckeyes defeated Wisconsin in the championship game.
“He loves these type of games, there's no question about it. He's big for us,” Matta said.
“You look at what he has accomplished thus far in his career at Ohio State and just the wins, the big plays that he's made, in coaching you don't get to coach a lot of guys like him just from A to Z and everything he stands for.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
Craft dominated the game at both ends for Ohio State on Saturday. He scored 20 points (on 13 shots) and dished out nine assists to go with three rebounds and a quartet of steals. He was all over the court, too. Not just on Appling, but backcourt mate Gary Harris, the Big Ten’s freshman of the year, was held to just 1-of-7 shooting.
Nebraska’s Ray Gallegos experienced similar frustration on Friday night, as he was limited to 2-of-12 shooting in a 71-50 loss to Craft and the Buckeyes. Craft finished with seven points in that game, but he dished out eight assists and had two steals in just 30 minutes of action against the Cornhuskers.
His 17 assists in the first two games of the tournament were the most Craft has tallied in back-to-back games all season. In fact, it’s the most he’s had since he dished out 22 assists in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament as a freshman back in 2011.
He also scored 20+ points for just the third time in his OSU career (all of them have been this season), and the second time this year against Michigan State.
“Once again we did not do a very good job on Craft, and he beat us in a different way,” Izzo said after Craft went for 20 and nine on Saturday night.
“The first time he beat us getting to the hole. He almost never got to the hole and this time he beat us with his jump shot.”
Craft was 9-of-13 from the floor in that game and he had it all going. He scored at the basket, just like he did during his 21-point performance against the Spartans in Columbus.
He also connected on a flip shot off the glass, hit a floater in the lane and stepped back for a handful of jumpers that looked about as pure as anything that has off come off the finger tips of the junior point guard out of Liberty-Benton High School.
“I'm probably always going to be known as a defensive player and I have no problem with that at all,” Craft said.
“But when I can knock down some easy shots, it not only helps me, it helps our entire team. It's not just about me trying to earn a name for myself, it helps makes our team do better, and that's what it's all about.”
Craft is the consummate team player and he makes the Buckeyes better every time he steps on the court. He’s the leader in the huddle before the game telling his teammates to stay hungry, and he’s the first one to call them together after a questionable three-point play swings momentum in the other team’s favor.
That happened more than a few times on Sunday, as Ohio State and Wisconsin went back and forth in a tightly-contested battle between two teams that were physically and emotionally drained from a grueling Big Ten season.
In the end, Craft’s team prevailed. He had only nine points, but grabbed a number of critical rebounds that helped the Buckeyes to another Big Ten Tournament championship, and ultimately a No. 2 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament.
He also forced at least one turnover with his mere presence. Craft battled so ferociously with Wisconsin’s 6-10 center Jared Berggren down in the paint that the Badgers ended up tossing the ball back to Ohio State out of frustration.
“Down the stretch we talked to each other and said, ‘hey, shots might not be falling, but our defense is going to win us this game,’” Craft said.
“Whether it was forcing a questionable shot or grabbing a big rebound, that's how you win big basketball games.”
It certainly helps to have No. 4 out there as well.
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