As Aaron Craft Goes, So Go the Buckeyes in the Big Ten

By Chris Lauderback on February 8, 2014 at 9:50 am

After racking up 13 straight wins against a decidedly soft non-conference schedule, climbing all the way to #3 in the national rankings, Thad Matta's basketball Buckeyes have had nothing short of a tumultuous 10-game start the the B1G slate and as you'd expect, their topsy-turvy ride has mirrored the production of senior point guard Aaron Craft. 

Ohio State's 5-5 mark in conference play has seen them win two in a row to kick things off, lose five of six in highly unimpressive fashion, and just when it seemed the team was dead in the water, they've rebounded with impressive back-to-back wins, on the road no less, against the likes of Wisconsin and Iowa. 

And while much of the chatter during conference play has been about the colossal struggles of Lenzelle Smith Jr. to find his stroke (34% FG, 27% 3FGA), Amir Williams' issues with continuously getting beat down the floor in transition defense combined with less than stellar hands in traffic, or Shannon Scott's inability to finish at the rim,  Aaron Craft's performance has been most relevant in determining whether the Buckeyes register a win or a loss on a nightly basis. 

It really is amazing just how much the numbers don't lie when it comes to Craft's impact on wins and losses in league action. 

@ MSU 3/8 38% 2 6 4 1.  9
IOWA 2/5 40% 3 6 6 3 6
@ MINN 2/6 33% 0 4 5 1 7
@ NEB 2/5 40% 7 3 4 2 12
PSU 3/6 50% 2 4 1 4 8
AVG / TOT 12/30 40% 2.8 4.6 4.0 2.2 8.4

In Ohio State's five B1G defeats, Craft has averaged a respectable 4.6 assists but severely hindered the squad's already-challenged offense with four turnovers per game.

In the first league loss at Sparty, after Ohio State used a late 20-3 run sparked by Craft to force overtime but in the extra session Aaron had a key turnover, one of four on the night, when he and Marc Loving miscommunicated on a pick and pop before the Buckeyes eventually fell, 82-78. 

Five nights later, Craft stunk it up with six turnovers and a B1G-play low six points as the Buckeyes collapsed in the 2nd half, dropping a 84-74 home decision to the Hawkeyes. Four nights later, he was almost as bad as he shot 33%, turned it over five times and managed just one steal in a 10-point loss at Minnesota. 

The Buckeyes appeared to hit rock bottom four nights later after Nebraska sent the Buckeyes tumbling to their fourth straight loss with Craft turning it ove four more times against three assists though he did log 12 points thanks to an 8/10 night from the stripe. 

After a home victory over Illinois stopped the bleeding just a tad, the Buckeyes finally did hit rock bottom as Penn State handed the Buckeyes a 71-70 overtime loss, overcoming an 11 point deficit with six minutes to play. Craft's numbers weren't horrific but his execution on the final play was as he failed to even get a shot off as if oblivious to the time left on the clock, out of a timeout, no less. 

Clearly, Craft was not alone is struggling in Ohio State's league defeats but as the unquestioned team leader and one of the most glossed players in college basketball, he absolutely did not live up to expectations as the losses mounted. 

@ PUR 3/8 38% 8 10 0 4 7
NEB 4/6 67% 3 4 0 3 9
ILL 3/8 38% 6 5 2 2 11
@ WISC 2/4 50% 4 4 1 2 7
@ IOWA 6/7 86% 3 6 4 6 17
AVG / TOT 18/33 55% 4.8 5.8 1.4 3.4 10.2

Absolutely the straw that stirs the drink, Craft has been largely huge in Ohio State's five conference wins. 

In the Buckeyes' conference opener at Purdue, Craft was sensational as he dished out 10 assists against zero turnovers, adding eight boards and four steals in a 78-69 win over the Boilers. 

Four nights later, Craft methodically ran the offense scoring nine points and logging 30 minutes without a turnover in a demolition of Nebraska. In fact, through the first 70 minutes of B1G play, Craft yielded zero turnovers against 14 assists with seven steals and all seemed right with the universe.

Of course, the wheels fell off after that as the Buckeyes dropped four straight in relatively helpless fashion. Then, when his team needed him most, Craft did just enough in a seven point win over Illinois as he scored 11 points, grabbed six boards and handed out five dimes to stem the tide even if for just a few days. 

Then, with the Buckeyes reeling after the noted home loss to Penn State in overtime and facing back-to-back roadies at Wisconsin and Iowa, Craft took his game to a higher level just when his team needed it most. 

He wasn't exactly dominant through the first 33 minutes in Madison but with the Buckeyes trailing by four with 5:55 left and the season on the brink, Craft scored seven of Ohio State's final nine points to turn a 54-50 hole into a 59-58 win in an arena where Thad Matta had escaped victorious  just one other time in 10 seasons. 

The win improved the Buckeyes to 4-5 in league action and gave them a huge boost of confidence ahead of last Tuesday night's tilt at Iowa. Looking to avenge the 10-point home loss to the Hawkeyes back on January 12th, Craft was in beast mode from start to finish. 

At the defensive end of the floor, Craft frustrated B1G POY candidate Roy Devyn Marble into a 4/11 shooting night with four turnovers while racking up a ridiculous six steals though it was his offensive performance that stole the show. 

Struggling to find the range as he shot 40% in league losses, Craft drained 6/7 shots from the field including 2/2 from distance on the way to a B1G-high 17 points to go along with six assists as the Buckeyes registered their most prolific offensive output in exactly one month in a 76-69 upset victory. 

Comparing his output in the five league wins against the five losses, Craft is shooting 15 percentage points higher, averaging 1.8 more points, 1.2 more assists, 2.0 more rebounds, 1.2 additional steals, and 2.6 less turnovers. 

With Matta's crew now seemingly back on track and facing a somewhat favorable scheduling stretch featuring home dates against Purdue, Northwestern and Minnesota offset by roadies at Michigan, Illinois and Penn State before closing with a trip to Bloomington and a home date with Sparty, the time is now for Craft to find some consistency in his game as the Buckeyes look to improve their Dance seeding knowing full well a regular season B1G crown is not a realistic possibility. 

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