INDIANAPOLIS – Aaron Craft had to come back in the game, right? He had to. Of course he had to. At every timeout, as his Ohio State team made another jet-propelled comeback against Michigan, Craft sprinted off the bench to greet his teammates with rapid-fire encouragement. He was coiled up, sitting for nearly nine minutes with four fouls, anxious to leap in and help seal his fourth straight trip to the Big Ten tournament final.
But did Aaron Craft have to come back in the game? Was his team, for these moments on this afternoon, better off without him?
Was the last Big Ten game he'd ever play one he shouldn't have finished?
Maybe no one in Ohio State's orbit would or could contemplate it after a 72-69 loss to Michigan, and certainly the disappointment was biting enough to process on its own. Craft felt it most acutely, for sure, standing on the floor as the horn blew, mouthpiece half-hanging out of his mouth. He'd had the ball in his hands and a chance to give his team life as the seconds sped down. And he very literally let it slip. He went up for a shot. The ball left his hands and went up, too, straight up, and then down nowhere in the neighborhood of the rim.
This after the two missed free throws, just after checking back in with 2:55 to play. This after the three-point attempt that rimmed in and out with 90 seconds left. This after Ohio State went from five points down to one up without him on the floor, after it scored exactly one point after he returned.
“It sucks,” Craft said, gamely answering for every bit of it at his locker stall. “I'm more disappointed in myself than anything. Our team showed tremendous fight and resiliency, and unfortunately it had to end the way it did. You can't change it.”
In fairness, another Michigan escape and step toward a No. 1 seed was helped along by much more than Craft's shortcomings. The Buckeyes' fundamental strategy and execution was a muddle. When Craft checked back in, it brought Sam Thompson to the bench after a raucous second half, instead of Lenzelle Smith, Jr., and his 1-for-7 shooting on the day. When the Buckeyes trailed by three and needed a score with 55 seconds left, Thompson remained bolted to a chair.
And when Michigan took over, up two with 44.5 seconds left, Ohio State elected not to foul and extend the game. It also elected not to rebound, as a miss from Michigan's Nik Stauskas found its way into Caris Levert's hands for an offensive rebound, which led to a Spike Albrecht free throw with six seconds to go.
“You know what, I told our guys, we have the No. 1 defense I the country,” coach Thad Matta said. “Let's don't foul. Let's get the stop and get the rebound and we'll go with it. We got the stop. We just didn't get the rebound.”
And the Buckeyes did have their last chance, the one that left Craft's hands and wound up going in the basket on the other end, as Stauskas raced to a celebratory dunk after the buzzer.
There was plenty not to like about the last few minutes for Ohio State.
There was also no dispute that Craft would be a part of it.
“Gotta have him out there,” Matta said. “There was just possessions where you knew it would come down tot he defensive end of it, and you want him in the game when the game's on the line defensively.”
In sum, the Buckeyes used two days at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to become terrifying. It's thin air at some of the heights to which they ascended. First there was the rally from 18 points down against Nebraska in the quarterfinals. And then they withstood thermonuclear three-point shooting from Michigan – the Wolverines started 8-of-11 and finished with 12 long-range bombs – throughout the semifinal.
But at the depths to which the Buckeyes plunged over the same period, there is no natural light and it helps to have sonar to make your way around. It is a tenuous way to live. “I feel like as a team, when our head's underwater, we start fighting more,” Scott said.
The defense came in ranked No. 3 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. That part of Ohio State's game won't budge in the NCAA tournament next week, and much credit for that of course goes to Craft, who tied for the national lead with 3.1 defensive win shares. (An estimate of how many victories are attributable to a player's defensive performance.) And then when the offense hums even a little, when LaQuinton Ross unsheaths some toughness and scores 19 points, when Scott compiles an all-over combustion to 18 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals, it's a frightening prospect.
In fact, the Buckeyes claimed some enlightenment after coming up empty Saturday. “This week has helped us kind of see what we're really capable of,” Craft said. “I'm not a big moral victory kind of guy. But we are a better team than when we got here.”
He his teammates came about that lesson the hard way. The Buckeyes brought themselves back without him and then handed the game to the player who has been the emblem of the program for four seasons. And Craft let it slip, and he stood there as the celebration passed him by, the most imperfect ending to what is likely the last Big Ten game he will play.