February 24, 2013

Craft's career day fuels Buckeyes in win

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Heading into a season where he was trying to replace a two-time All-American and his program's third all-time leading scorer, Ohio State coach Thad Matta knew that he would have to rely more on Aaron Craft from an offensive standpoint in the point guard's junior season. And while Craft's 2012-13 campaign thus far could best be described as "consistently inconsistent," he showed up when it mattered most on Sunday.

Scoring a career-high 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year turned in the best offensive performance of his three-year college career, leading the No. 18 Buckeyes (20-7, 10-5) to a 68-60 win over No. 4 Michigan State (22-6, 11-4). The two-time Academic All-American's effort was the type that Matta was hoping to get on a regular basis from Craft this season, after the departures of Jared Sullinger and William Buford.

"It definitely helps our basketball team when he's (scoring), because you know what you're going to get on the other end," Matta said. "He's the best defender in college basketball, there's no question about that."

Plagued by woes as a jump shooter- including a 3-for-15 performance in a loss to Duke in November- Craft has yet to develop into the consistent second scorer behind Deshaun Thomas that Matta was hoping he would. On Sunday, however, he found a different way to get the job done, driving to the basket and converting layups, contested and uncontested alike. The results were apparent, with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo pointing to junior's play as the difference in the game.

"He beat us every way you can beat us," Izzo said. "Aaron Craft was more aggressive than I've ever seen him to score. Give him credit for that."

For his part, Craft said that his newfound attacking style came as a result of watching film from Ohio State's Jan. 19 loss to the Spartans. The Findlay, Ohio native noticed that the Buckeyes left missed opportunities on the court in East Lansing, by not forcing Michigan State's big men to make defensive decisions in pick-and-roll situations.

"We saw some things we thought we could take advantage of. The first game, I don't think we did a great job of challenging their bigs," Craft said. "Michigan State's a big pressure team. They really thrive off of turnovers and things like that. That's who they are. That's what you come into the game expecting. You can't change too much of your identity, especially this late in the year. We just took advantage."

It wasn't just with his scoring that Craft made his mark. The Liberty Benton product also dished out six assists, pulled down three rebounds, recorded a steal and made several key hustle plays on both ends of the floor.

With Craft just days removed from being named the Academic All-America of the Year in Division I men's basketball, his coach said that it's no coincidence that his hard work in the classroom has a tendency of carrying over to his play on the court.

"The reads he was making tonight were incredible," Matta said. "When you're as astute as he is, he wants to know everything and he processes. And he doesn't play like it like he's out there thinking. He's just got a great feel in terms of understanding what a team is trying to do."

With three regular season games remaining, the Buckeyes could certainly use more nights like this from Craft as they attempt to secure a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. But given both his smarts and capabilities, Matta trusts his point guard to pick and choose his spots depending on each situation OSU finds itself in.

"I've always wanted A.C. to be as aggressive as he wants to be and felt he needed to," Matta said. "We've got great faith in Aaron."


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