Aaron Craft's offensive breakout pushes Ohio State to Sweet 16
PITTSBURGH -- As the final seconds wound down and Ohio State had gotten one last stop to snuff out Gonzaga's hope, the rectangular red patches that appear on Aaron Craft's cheeks from exertion were in full, vibrant color. Another game without a break is nothing new for the sophomore point guard, nor was his defensive effort that helped harass heralded freshman Kevin Pangos into a 3-for-13 afternoon.
Rather, it was Craft's unexpected explosion on the other end of the floor that tilted the balance of a game where Ohio State was, at times, outplayed and outmuscled. His season-high-tying 17 points and season's best 10 assists were a major reason why Gonzaga's headed back to Spokane with a tough 73-66 defeat. They also serve as a warning light as bright as Craft's cheeks for Ohio State's foes in Boston next weekend. With Deshaun Thomas' continuing standout play and Craft's success, opponents can't expect that limiting Jared Sullinger and William Buford is not enough to beat the Buckeyes right now.
"A lot of teams have done that," Craft said about a seemingly sound plan to cut off some of the Buckeyes' more heralded options. "What Jared is capable of, what Deshaun is capable of, a lot of teams try to focus on those guys. That just leaves Will, Lenzelle [Smith Jr.} and myself open to be aggressive. Tonight there were open lanes. I found some."
In the locker room Thursday night, after the win over Loyola (Md.), Craft pointedly said that perhaps some of the younger Buckeyes didn't know what kind of effort it took to win consistently at the highest level. And whether directly his fault or not, 18 turnovers against a lesser opponent reflects on the point guard. After Saturday's game, Smith noted that many of the miscues the other night were of the team variety, that sometimes bad cuts to the ball or miscommunications can lead to turnovers. Despite Craft playing down the bounceback factor, it sure looked like Saturday was more than just business.
"He took it personal because everything reflects on him as the point guard and leader," associate head coach Jeff Boals said, "and he really brought it at both ends of the floor."
Boals went on to say that the staff would like Craft to be more aggressive with his own offense. Widely considered the best on-ball perimeter defender in the college game, Craft actually has scored in double figures in six of the Buckeyes' last nine games, and as a testament to his aggressiveness off the dribble, he's only made seven three-pointers in those six games (with four coming at Northwestern on Feb. 29).
Saturday, his aggression was a requirement, allowing the Buckeyes to creep into halftime with the lead despite Sullinger only playing nine minutes due to foul trouble. Ohio State had 16 baskets in the first half, and Craft was responsible for 11 between four makes and seven assists. A couple more crafty (pun intended) drives in the second half helped force Gonzaga into a zone defense, one that Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta said his staff calculated that the Zags played six percent of the time this season.
"Everybody doesn't understand that Aaron is a scorer," Sullinger said. "But he passes first with this basketball team. I mean, that was their game plan. He capitalized on it."
Now it's on to Boston where the Buckeyes' Sweet 16 opponent -- Florida State or Cincinnati -- will also have a post presence big and physical enough to bother Sullinger without doubling. Get past that, and rangy, deep Syracuse may loom in the regional final. Ohio State will continue to need Craft (and others) to be primary sources of offense to help the Buckeyes gut through, much like they did Saturday.
On this day, there really was nothing Craft couldn't do, except perhaps tame the flames in his cheeks and actually get off the floor for a breather. Matta is notorious for riding a tight rotation in general, and one-and-done games in the postseason won't make him loosen that leash. He knows it's not optimal, but he also knows he needs to ride Craft, who has emerged as the heart of this Buckeyes team.
"I was checking his pulse there throughout the course of the game, just saying, 'You OK?'" Matta said. "He's smiling, saying, 'I can go all day.' And he can do that."