In the second half of Ohio State’s 61-58 win over Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament semifinal Saturday, Aaron Craft had the basketball in his hands and it felt perfectly natural that he wasn’t looking to give it up.
“He looked like me,” joked Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer. “He was scoring, and he was doing it all.”
Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration – Thomas’ love affair shooting would be hard to match – but Craft’s aggressiveness on the offensive end of the floor during the last month has made for an apparent transformation in his overall game.
And so Ohio State has also transformed.
The Buckeyes aren’t a one-man team anymore, the one that over-relied on Thomas to score the basketball only to become vulnerable in the rare instances when the junior’s shot isn’t falling.
“The last few weeks really speak to the type of team we are when Craft is feeling it,” sophomore forward Sam Thompson said. “Craft has been playing great basketball, and if he is scoring, it also turns into easy shots for everybody else. We have really been able to feed off of him and we’re tough to beat when he is knocking down shots.”
Michigan State has now learned that lesson twice in less than three weeks.
It started on Feb. 24 when the Buckeyes topped Michigan State 68-60 in Value City Arena, a game where Craft scored a career-high 21 points. In that game, he repeatedly got to the basket – 14 of those points came off of shots at the rim – as he sliced through the over-aggressive Spartans defense.
On Sunday, Craft victimized Michigan State again, this time for 20 points. It looked different with only four points coming off layups – MSU adjusted its defense to force Craft to make jumpers – but the point guard knocked down tough mid-range shots to continually keep the Buckeyes in control of the game.
“It’s all confidence with Aaron because we all have known that he can score,” OSU assistant Chris Jent told BSB. “Obviously he’s always going to be a difference maker for us on defense, but when he’s scoring we will definitely take it. The more games he puts together like this, the more confidence he'll grow and the better off we'll be."
Most important, Craft’s offensive efficiency masked a tough shooting day for Thomas, something the Buckeyes may have struggled to overcome had it been earlier in the year. Thomas finish with 16 points, but he made only 6-of-19 field goal attempts and missed nine of his 11 shot attempts from beyond the arc.
“We did not do a very good job on Craft, and he beat us in a different way,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “The first time he beat us getting to the hole. He almost never got to the hole this time. He beat us with his jump shot.”
Ohio State has won its last seven games, and it isn’t coincidence that Craft has had this best offensive spurt of his career. The junior has scored 14 or more points in four of the Buckeyes’ last six games, all while growing a quiet confidence on the offensive end that lacked during the early portions of the season.
“It relaxes everybody else when I am scoring and it takes pressure off of everyone,” Craft said. “Obviously DT doesn’t have to do as much for us. It really helped us out.”
Craft scored 18 of his points in the second half, but it was most appropriate that it was Thomas who knocked down a shot to extend Ohio State’s advantage to two scores with only 22.4 seconds remaining in the game.
That’s because roles on the team won’t change with Ohio State being only Sunday’s Big Ten tournament championship game against Wisconsin away from the NCAA Tournament.
Thomas, of course, will continue to be the Buckeyes’ leading scoring option while Craft’s reputation be mostly built from his relentless defensive approach.
But whomever Ohio State encounters in the Big Dance will have to think twice about giving Craft any room to operate on the offensive end.
He’s proven at the tail end of the season that he can be lethal.
And with that, so can Ohio State.
“And that makes us extremely dangerous,” senior big man Evan Ravenel said. “When you’re playing against a team that has a point guard that can put the ball in the hole, it opens the entire floor up for kick-outs, three-point shots and other scoring chances. Aaron has been finishing and that has taken us to a whole new level as a team. It think that's been clear with our recent results.”
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