Chicago – Few college basketball players are criticized quite like Aaron Craft.
Whether it is his rosy red cheeks, his subtly confident personality or even his skin tone, Craft has been the subject of much abuse from fans and media since he arrived at Ohio State. Yet when it comes to playing the MSU men’s basketball team, any criticism of the junior guard is best left at the door.
Craft put together another strong performance against MSU, featuring a game-high 20 points, nine assists and four steals, while providing a second-half spark the Buckeyes (25-7) needed to advance to the Big Ten Tournament final and send the Spartans (25-8) packing.
“(I was) just trying to believe in myself,” Craft told the media during the postgame press conference. “We have a lot of plays that we can execute that either get me open shots or I can help create for somebody else, and tonight I found some openings and was able to knock down some shots.”
Craft scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half, consistently getting to the paint and pulling up for jump shots at every opportunity. Although leading the game in scoring, Craft was able to maintain his patented pass-first mentality to combine with guard Shannon Scott for 14 total assists in the game.
It was the second consecutive game Craft has been able to score 20 points on the Spartans and just the third time in his career he’s been able to score 20 or more.
When asked the correct way to defend a player of Craft’s skill set, freshman guard Gary Harris insisted the question was misdirected, given the way he’s been able to perform in the last two matchups against the Spartans.
“He’s making plays; he’s done a good job of making plays,” said Harris, who finished the game with five points, four rebounds and two turnovers. “He has a great basketball IQ so he knows different ways to get his shot or get his teammates a shot.”
The adjustment Craft has been able to make in his game was subject of praise by MSU head coach Tom Izzo.
Having carefully studied the tape from the previous defeat by the Buckeyes, Izzo said Craft was the main catalyst for OSU once more, though he was able to do it in a different way.
“The first time he beat us getting to the hole,” Izzo said. “He almost never got to the hole and this time he beat us with the jump shot. (Craft and Thomas) are about the only two guys that really had an impact.”
The Big Ten Tournament served as the first postseason experience for several members of the Spartans including sophomore guard/forward Branden Dawson, who suffered an injury to his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) against the Buckeyes a season ago and missed the postseason.
Dawson said the Spartans didn’t get to bed until 1 a.m. on Saturday following Friday’s win over Iowa and felt signs of fatigue in the semifinal loss to OSU.
However, Dawson said the rigors of the conference tournament likely will serve the team well in the NCAA Tournament.
“It was kind of tough for myself because after the first game, I was banged up a little bit and my knees were kind of sore,” Dawson said. “You know, I just told those guys, the younger guys, ‘We just have to pick it up and keep fighting’ and for us, keep fighting and get ready for Selection Sunday.”