To those who weren’t aware of the situation, it was just a typical Tuesday night home game in January for the Ohio State basketball team.
The Buckeyes were hosting a good-but-not-great Iowa squad in a game that they were expected (and needed) to win in a difficult conference race. Thad Matta’s team was able to secure a 72-63 victory, but that wasn’t the entire story.
Aaron Craft—who has stolen everything from the hearts of the girls of Buckeye Nation to the frustration of the other fanbases across the Big Ten during his time in Columbus—became Ohio State's all-time steals leader with his 205th career theft.
Considering the fact that he is only a mere two and a half seasons into his collegiate tenure—one of which he spent coming off the bench—Craft’s steal total, which now sits at 209, is nothing short of remarkable.
However, merely looking at the box score to see how many steals Craft racks up does not even begin to indicate how much his defense influences the game. To better capture that, Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn created the Aaron Craft Turnometer, which tallies his steals, charges taken, miscellaneous screens/offensive fouls created and various other turnovers that were not credited to reach a percentage of opponents’ possessions that end in Craft forcing a turnover.
It was featured in a Craft profile in the most recent print edition of SI, and it currently hovers just under 10 percent.
While the box scores may not recognize that overall impact, opposing coaches certainly do. CBSSports.com polled 100 coaches across the college basketball landscape before the season started and asked them which player they would add to their current roster if they could only add just one.
Craft received the third-most votes, behind only Indiana's Cody Zeller and UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad. The fact that Craft was that coveted by other coaches even though he isn’t much of an offensive force truly underscores just how much he can change a game without the ball in his hands.
So it’s clear that Craft is a special type of defender that doesn’t come around very often, especially in today’s day and age of Sportscenter inspired dunks and long-range shooting. But where does he rank among the best Buckeye defenders of all time?
Even though I just spent multiple paragraphs stressing the need to go beyond the stats when determining Craft’s defensive worth, the logical starting point here would be the statistical record books.
Craft’s company on Ohio State’s all-time steals list includes Jay Burson at No. 2, David Lighty at No. 3 and Dennis Hopson at No. 4. Hopson happens to be Ohio State’s all-time leading scorer, and if the conversation was about best overall players in Buckeye history he would certainly be in the discussion.
For what it’s worth, Mike Conley Jr. would probably be near the top of this list had he stayed all four years. He had the all-time single season record for steals until Craft broke that last year.
Another defensive category that is worth noting is blocked shots. This is virtually a two-man category for Ohio State historians, and those two players are Ken Johnson and Herb Williams. Johnson holds the school’s all-time single season and career record for swats, but Williams’ consistency over his four years puts him in the No. 2 position.
Williams also ranks second on the all-time Ohio State rebounding list, something that has to be factored in when discussing defensive prowess and big men.
Again, like Conley when it came to steals, had Greg Oden stayed for all four seasons (and presumably remained healthy), he would be very high on the block list. His injury-plagued freshman campaign still featured more than 100 swats and places him third on the single-season record list.
While these statistics are certainly meaningful, of this list of players Lighty probably impacted the game more beyond the box score than anyone else. Like Craft, he was constantly diving on the floor for loose balls, drawing charges and making life miserable on the opposing team’s best ball-handlers every game.
What’s more, he was asked to defend the opposition's most talented guard or forward on a nightly basis.
There is one imperative asterisk to consider when discussing this list of all-time Ohio State defenders. Steals and blocks were not considered official statistics until after the collegiate careers of the two best Buckeyes were both over—Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek.
Heck, Havlicek’s most famous moment on a basketball court revolves around his defensive prowess thanks to a legendary call that occurred when he stole the ball for the Boston Celtics in the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals. He was a staple on NBA All-Defensive teams and had no problem harassing opponents.
As for Lucas, nobody comes close to touching him on the all-time career or single season Ohio State rebounding lists. In fact, he occupies the top three spots on that single-season record board alone.
These two won one national championship and went to three Final Fours largely because of their defensive abilities. The 1959-60 season still marks the only national title in school history even though the Buckeyes have been to 11 Final Fours.
Their impact on the program is unmatched to this day.
Basically, Craft is facing some steep competition when it comes to Buckeye defenders. However, that all-time steals record is a nice trump card to throw down in any debate, even if it is difficult to compare guards to big men it this argument.
I believe that Craft definitely ranks as a top-five Ohio State defensive player in the history of the program. He arguably belongs in the top three, and I would have no problem putting him there. But I am just not ready to declare him better than the basketball legends that were Havlicek and Lucas.
At least not yet.