Take Me to Your Leader

By Sarah on March 20, 2012 at 2:00p
19 Comments
Aaron Craft: the cure for the Tin Man.Available for purchase here

On Saturday, when Ohio State dispatched Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, fans were left with familiar feeling. For the third straight season, the Buckeyes punched their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.

Unfortunately, those first two celebrations were short-lived. Both squads turned around and took one on the chin in their next matchup.

In order to prove correct the adage about the third time being a charm, this year's team will have to beat one of the three other in-state schools still left in the tournament1. If talent alone determines the winner, Ohio State will handle Cincinnati and move on to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2007.

However, if we know one thing about the 2011-12 version of the Scarlet and Gray, it's that they can play maddeningly inconsistent basketball. Following most of their losses, chemistry seemed to be the issue as players lamented the lack of teamwork and the poor quality of their practices. 

Perhaps more than Jon Diebler's three-point shooting prowess, what fans have longed for this season is the veteran leadership that he, Dallas Lauderdale and especially David Lighty brought to last year's Buckeyes.

Although William Buford is the lone senior, he's never been seen as a vocal guy who will get in his teammates' faces, Lighty-style, if need be. And while he hit the game-winner against Michigan State in the regular season finale, he is defined more by his streakiness than anything else.

Jared Sullinger, who may not be the be-all, end-all player that Evan Turner was for Ohio State two years ago, is still a star, albeit one that hasn't dominated as much as many expected. He's also easily prone to showing a lot of frustration out on the court.

Deshaun Thomas, with a career-high 31 points against Loyola, has scored in double figures for 11 straight games and is dangerous if anyone tries to get between him and his offensive rebounds. Despite his aptitude for taking over games as of late, this is his first year as a main contributor to the team. 

Up until Saturday, it seemed like no one was captaining the HMS Buckeye this season. With a little under 8 minutes left in the first half against Gonzaga, Lenzelle Smith Jr. whipped the ball past a wide-open Aaron Craft and right into the stands. It was Ohio State's seventh turnover to that point. Gonzaga had just taken its biggest lead, 27-20. Jared Sullinger was on the bench with two fouls. The time had come for someone to right the ship. 

Then, with one simple gesture, Craft waved his hand and instructed Smith to calm down, and it was like he was speaking to the rest of his teammates and to every Scarlet and Gray-bleeding fan watching.

In that second, it became crystal clear: whether born or made, Ohio State now had a leader.

The Buckeyes closed out the half on a 19-10 run, triggered by an old-fashioned three-point play from Craft, to take a 39-37 lead. They did not commit another turnover in those eight minutes while they forced five from the Bulldogs.

Aaron Craft finished the game with 17 points on 7/9 shooting and added 10 assists, 3 rebounds, and 3 steals. It was his first career double-double. He also shut down Gonzaga's leading scorer, Kevin Pangos, who was just 3/13 from the floor.

As expected of any team who is still alive at this point in the season, Craft was hardly alone in his production. Sullinger, who was excellent in crunch time, and Thomas, who pulled down a game-high seven boards, each came away with 18 points.

Yet, it was Craft who Thomas bestowed that intangible description once given to Turner and Lighty: "He's the heart and soul of the team."

By now, everyone knows who Craft is. He's the Academic All-American who can rattle off Pi to 60 digits and solve a Rubik's Cube in barely over a minute. 

He's the scrappy, pesky, gritty2 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year that provokes opponents such as Michigan State's Keith Appling to illustrate that going up against him is, "kind of like having a pest under you for 40 minutes of the game."

He's the one who will take delight in knocking an opponent off his game, but he's also the first one to help him up if he literally knocks him down. 

He's the kind of player who earns Thad Matta's trust, and one that receives praise from other coaches. Tom Izzo, who has a national championship and over 400 career wins to his name, referred to Craft as, "the best on-the-ball defender that I've ever seen."

With 88 steals so far, Craft now owns the school record for the most in a season. He'll dive on the floor and in the stands whether he can make an awe-inspiring play or if it's merely a futile attempt at one. Either way, fans will swoon and then pay homage to their favorite point guard by clapping their hands or fist-pumping in pride3, because they appreciate someone whose motor doesn't quit and who is never satisfied with anything less than his best effort. 

He probably got an A+++ on his physics exam.He can even defy the laws of physics

What Craft had been missing is the label, "offensive threat." Gonzaga coach Mark Few admitted, "We just decided that he needed to score and devoted our attention to some other people who have been proven scorers", and the sophomore made them pay for that game plan. 

Since the 56-51 loss to Michigan a month ago, in which he recorded a 1/6 from the floor performance, Craft has stepped up his offense. In the last nine contests, he's made over 60% (37/61) of his field goal tries while averaging over 10 points per game. During that stretch, he's scored in multiple ways, whether from outside, hitting a pull-up jumper, or driving to the basket. 

Besides Ohio State losing to Michigan, that dark February night in Ann Arbor produced another unusual result when freshman Trey Burke got the better of Craft and put up 17 points, including the bucket that sealed the win for the Wolverines.

That motivated the OSU PG to pore over game film before the two rivals met again in the Big Ten Tournament. Out for revenge, Craft harassed Burke, who coughed up the ball eight times and converted just one of his 11 shot attempts.

That would not be the last time he'd be inspired to raise his game. After the sloppy 19-point win in the first round that saw the Buckeyes commit 18 turnovers, including five from Craft himself, he not only helped gather the players for a meeting to talk out their problems, but the floor general then turned in his best performance of the season two days later.  

It's that combination—a player who can step up on and off the court, both by example and with words—that makes the best kind of leader. If his team needs him to lock down an opponent or put the ball through the hoop, Craft is willing to work his hardest. As relayed by Matta, he "can go all day."

Craft is not the only Buckeye capable of leadership, and now that we're in the single elimination portion of the season, if they want to advance, he can't be the only one who guides this team.  

Sullinger is often seen cheering on his teammates and can put this squad on this back during important stretches of a game. Buford and Thomas have also demonstrated that they can make key shots in tight contests. 

But in a year when Ohio State basketball has been known most for their enigmatic nature, what they've needed is a constant4, and it looks like they've finally found him.

Although Buford will graduate and Sullinger and Thomas could have their sights set on the NBA once the season is done, the good news for Ohio State fans is that Aaron Craft will be around for two more years, ready to lead the way.

  • 1 Because it cannot be reiterated enough, the state of Ohio made history with that accomplishment. 
  • 2 Or whatever white BB player adjective you prefer. 
  • 3 How annoying would he be if he suited up for another team? Luckily, he doesn't and we can enjoy his tenacity, which is another white BB player adjective. 
  • 4 Classic episode
19 Comments

Comments

Matt's picture

Great article.  Based on the player's recent comments, here's my interpretation of the team strife: Buford and Thomas have not appreciated Sully's recent tactics in games, where he gets in foul trouble early in the first half, sits on the bench, and then proceeds to play catch up in the second half by demanding the ball and chucking up ill-advised, off balanced, poor shots, with the expectation that he will get a foul call to shoot FTs.  Sully doesn't get the foul call, the shot misses, and Sully worries more about yelling at the ref than getting back on defense.  Buford and Thomas watch that happen a few times, and then decide that there isn't value to working the ball into the paint to Sully and/or keeping up their movement off ball screens.  The offense stagnates, there is no ball movement, and defenses lock in on Sully.  Thomas said some interesting things after Zaga to the effect of, "there is more people on this team than Sullinger, more stars who can score."  I really hope this team has turned a corner, but I think it starts and ends with how willing Sully is to pass out of double teams and make the right play, rather than prove to the basketball world that he is just as good this year as he was last year.

stevepoland's picture

Slow.  Clap.  For.  You.  This is spot-on.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Some truth to what you're saying, but you're overemphasizing one player's inconsistencies, whereas it's a team issue. 

In the closing minutes of the game at MSU, Sully found two open shooters (Thomas, then later Craft), which kept them in a tight ballgame. Part of the reason he was able to find them was how well Thomas/Craft moved off the ball, which hasn't always been consistent, either - i.e., it's a two-way street, chicken/egg deal. 

Thomas has a natural gift for scoring and his defense keeps improving, but Thomas' occasional defensive lapses might have a similar snowball effect as you suggest Sully's offensive fits do: when Thomas got lost on defense, the other defenders had to scramble around and maybe got frustrated.

Besides, it's not for mature ballplayers to decide "that there isn't value to working the ball into the paint . . . and/or keeping up their movement off ball screens." The coach says what's of value. Not sure if those attitudes accurately describe Buford and Thomas, but if so, they'd shoulder some of the fault. In other words, the issues wouldn't start and end with Sully.   

SouthernBuck's picture

After Craft's first game at OSU I told my wife, "you have to see this kid play,"  and he continues to impress me every game.  He is humble in success yet the takes blame in defeat.  I'm proud that he is a Buckeye and thankful he's not anywhere else.

 

Jdadams01's picture

Agree completely with this. My only gripe about him at times has been his lack of being an offensive threat. And as Sarah noted, he has been vastly improved as of late.

Enzo's picture

Great article.

I think your lady-boner for Aaron might be showing:)

slippy's picture

I'm not sure why everyone has missed this all year.  He's the first one to talk a teammate after a play stoppage - for good or for bad.  Before every free throw, it's Craft that calls the guys into the huddle to say whatever he has to say.  He keeps out of trouble off the court and keeps his grades high.  Rarely complains about calls and never to the point of it being distracting.

 

Being a SR doesn't mean you're automatically a leader.

 

I never understood the ridiculous emphasis and overblown nature put on leadership in college sports.  You don't need a leader.  Just play as a team and play well.  If it's a team full of immature whiners then yes, someone needs to pull them together.  But a bunch of level headed athletes can play together just fine without a true 'leader.'  (not saying our team is the bunch of level headed guys.  Just saying in some sports - especially basketball where 1 player can dominate - it's not always necessary).

slippy's picture

I think what I mean to say are the times, for example, when the team is going through a cold streak and maybe a frustration turnover/foul pops up.  The announcers immediately go to 'this team needs their leader to step up.'  When what they actually mean is "someone on the team needs to make a shot."  There's a difference between being a good player and being a good leader (and being the older guy on the team) and too many times people just blur the line into one.

AltaBuck's picture

I watched John Stockton quite a few times and I find it ironic that the Bucks just played Gonzaga with John Stockton in the crowd to watch his son. Craft reminds a lot of a stockier John Stockton, especially on D and setting screens in the low post. Both are/were great on the ball and help defenders. Stockton developed a reputation as a 'dirty' player which IMO was more a product of his hustle and determination than anything else.  Look for Craft to develop a similar rep as his career progresses.

I have been known on occasion to howl at the moon. - Crash Davis

Denny's picture

John Stockier-ton.

Taquitos.

buckeyefanatic's picture

My wife used to call Mike Conley "the purse snatcher" because he was so quick.  Admit it, you thought I was about to say because he was BLACK!  No not because he was black ... quick.  She calls Craft the new purse snatcher because she would have thought it was the same guy if not for the color difference.

GO BUCKS!  Nice write Sarah.

How many batteries does it take to beat Michigan football?   1AA
Want to beat Michigan? There's an App for that.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Well written, insightful piece, Sarah! If Craft can continue to play at such a high level and then Buford has some good nights, this team could do some real damage.  

Denny's picture

I instinctively rolled my eyes about when I heard the hiring, but I'd imagine that Craft is benefiting greatly from having Greg Paulus on the coaching staff.

Taquitos.

Maestro's picture

Nice write up.  Thanks, I enjoyed it almost as much as I enjoy Craft play the game.

vacuuming sucks

German Buckeye's picture

Why is no one thinking Craft could bounce to the NBA next season - especially if he can knock down the open shot like he has been lately (like Stockton could) - his game translates to the NBA.  Or, has Craft inidcated already he's a four year player at OSU? 

acBuckeye's picture

If he left early, I have a hard time believing he'd get drafted.

RedStorm45's picture

Not consistent yet with his outside shot, not extremely quick with the ball in hands, average free throw shooter.  He'll have a very good chance in another year or two though.

acBuckeye's picture

The white BB player adjectives never get old.

Speaking of Izzo, Craft would run circles around Year 2000 Mateen Cleaves; the most overrated college basketball player in history.

Scott's picture

I'm catching up a bit on some articles I've missed and I'm glad I made my way back to this one. I can't think of a good female sports writer adjective, so I'll just say good work, Sarah. Not bad... for a girl.

Class of 2008