Ohio State's Craft could be determining factor in Sweet 16 matchup
Ohio State guard Aaron Craft (4) shoots and hits the game-winning basket over Iowa State forward Georges Niang (31) late in the second half of a third-round game in the NCAA Tournament at Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio, Sunday, March 24, 2013. Ohio State defeated Iowa State, 78-75. (Terry Gilliam/MCT)
Ohio State’s junior point guard Aaron Craft didn’t have a perfect finish in the Buckeyes’ 78-75 win against Iowa State — he missed three late free throws, had two turnovers after the six-minute mark and drew a controversial charge foul.
He also hit a game-winning 3-pointer.
“I was just trying to stay focused and poised,” Craft said in the post-game press conference. “I did some things down the stretch I don’t normally do.
“We had confidence in about three or four guys at the end that could take a shot. This game just happened to be me, and I was able to knock it down.”
Craft is somewhat limited offensively, but he is devastating defensively, a great floor general and a leader on and off the court.
And he could be the deciding factor in Arizona’s Sweet 16 matchup with No. 2-seed OSU on Thursday at 4:47 p.m. at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“He’s a true leader in every sense of the word for that team,” Arizona’s Solomon Hill said. “It shows on the last play he made in the last game, crucial situation like that and his plays prior to that controversial charge that he was in the place to take [and] free throws missed. And he still was there at the end of the game to seal it off for them.”
Arizona head coach Sean Miller brought up that Craft isn’t a great 3-point shooter (30.1 percent). But in that situation there was no question it was going in.
“If you’re a betting man, you’re going to bet that the shot is going to go in because that’s who he is,” Miller said in Monday’s press conference.
The erratic, rollercoaster-like nature of Craft’s final few minutes in OSU’s third-round victory perfectly encapsulates the unconventional nature of the Findlay, Ohio, native. He’s a middle-of-the-road shooter (43.1 percent) despite being second on the team in scoring.
He carries the team with his defensive play and leadership abilities, drawing comparisons from Miller to one of the quirkier athletes out there: Current New York Jets quarterback and former Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow.
“What makes [Craft] such a special basketball player is who he is as a person,” Miller said. “He’s a 4.0 student, he’s an incredible leader, as great of a competitor as you’ll find. He puts a lot of emphasis and energy on defense, and he’s also talented in that area.
“Then on offense he runs the show. It’s not about scoring points for him; it’s about being the point guard.”
In addition to being an Academic All-American, Craft is second in the Big 10 in assists (4.7 per game) and second in steals (2.1 per game). He’s also regarded as one of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball.
“Watching this kid for the last three years of his career, he can play defense as well as anybody in this country,” said Ari Wasserman, the basketball beat writer for the Buckeye Sports Bulletin. “And, it’s a different type of defense. It’s a really in-your-face type of defense that really rattles people.”
Craft’s defense on Arizona point guard Mark Lyons will really be a determining factor in Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup.
Lyons led the Wildcats in scoring this season and is averaging 25 points per game through the first two rounds of the tournament on 62.5 percent shooting (20-for-32). But Craft isn’t new to defending offensively-gifted guards. He’s gone against Michigan’s Trey Burke four times and held Iona’s Lamont “Momo” Jones, the third-leading scorer in the nation, to nine points on 3-of-14 from the field in the Buckeyes’ first tournament game.
“If it comes down to Aaron Craft versus Mark Lyons, I haven’t seen Craft lose a 1-on-1 battle all year,” said Wasserman, who was also assistant sports editor at the Arizona Daily Wildcat in 2009.
Fortunately for Arizona, it has enough offensive weapons to potentially weather a poor offensive showing from Lyons. Hill also doesn’t think Lyons will need to change the way he attacks with the ball.
“I don’t think he’s really going to change who he is, because you’re talking to a New York point guard,” Hill said. “I don’t think he’s really going to change for anybody at this point. I think he’ll be more aware that Aaron Craft likes stealing the ball; he likes taking charges. He will watch out for it.”
Come Thursday, one of the more unique stars in college basketball will take the floor for the Buckeyes. Arizona can’t stop Craft’s intangibles off the court, but if the Wildcats want to win, they’ll have to stop his impact on it.
“If he’s not one of your favorite players, then you don’t like college basketball,” Miller said.