- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The rosy-cheeked aggression is nothing new.
The difference was where Aaron Craft was channeling that famous energy.
The Ohio State junior has built his reputation largely on the strength of his relentless, pesky approach on defense. Michigan State can once again attest that nothing has changed on that end of the floor. But in something of a surprise to the No. 4 Spartans, Craft went after the rim and the lane the same way he normally would a ball-handler. He made himself just as much of a nuisance offensively in a 68-60 win at Value City Arena that offered a reminder that No. 18 Ohio State shouldn’t be written off quite yet.
“It was great to see the ball going in for him and him attacking the rim,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. “I thought he was tremendous today. It definitely helps our basketball team when he’s doing that, because you know what you’re going to get on the other end.
“I mean, he’s the best defender in college basketball, there’s no question about it.”
There were some lingering doubts about how much scoring Craft could supply to complement the consistent defense, but he was certainly the most productive offensive player on the court on Sunday afternoon in one of Ohio State’s last chances to make a statement and build momentum before the postseason.
The Spartans had no answer for the dual-threat Craft, who made it look routine to get to the basket off the dribble. He rarely took a wrong step on the pick-and-roll, either finishing on his own or setting up teammates for one of his six assists. He won one-on-one matchups to get easy finishes, dropped in contested attempts in traffic, and was almost perfect from the free-throw line on the way to a game-high 21 points.
As recently as a week ago Ohio State was reeling from a blowout loss at Wisconsin and Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, was struggling with his shot. The Buckeyes couldn't have needed Craft to be at his best offensively more than this game. Considering that his previous career high had come against Albany in the season opener, Craft might never have been better with the ball in his hands than he was against the Spartans.
“Give Craft credit, he tore us apart in the second half,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “It was Aaron Craft, he beat us every way he could beat us.
“Aaron Craft was more aggressive than I’ve ever seen him as a scorer, and give him credit for that. I couldn’t plan for something I’ve never seen before.”
The Buckeyes would obviously be more formidable if Craft had that part of his game more regularly; although his defense has already helped keep an inconsistent team, that relies heavily on Thomas, afloat.
Craft still gave Ohio State everything it has come to expect from him. He was credited with only one steal, but he helped fluster Keith Appling as Michigan State’s leading scorer hit just one of his six shots and finished with three points. Craft was a fixture on the floor as he threw his body around for loose balls -- notably securing a crucial possession late in the game in a scrum under the Ohio State basket. He pushed all the right buttons on the floor, knowing just when to push the tempo or slow it down to let his teammates regroup.
But he apparently realized that the Buckeyes needed him to add something extra to allow Ohio State to hang around in the Big Ten race a little longer.
“The biggest thing that we get from a game like this is a win against a great opponent,” Craft said. “This is big for this basketball team, the way we’ve picked ourselves up from a week ago [at Wisconsin] when we weren’t ready to go. Hopefully we can continue to build off this.
“If it takes [me scoring] -- I don’t care who is scoring, who is putting the ball in the bucket as long as we come out with more points.”
Collectively, that was the Buckeyes. And they’re clearly a more dangerous team when Craft is pacing the individuals.