The biggest shot of Aaron Craft's junior season was on a play which was run for Ohio State star Deshaun Thomas. The Buckeyes were tied with Iowa State in the round of 32 of the NCAA tournament, and Thomas came off a staggered screen.
Craft had missed the front-end of a 1-and-1 with 1:15 left and the game tied, and he had missed a jumper with 29 seconds left and the game still tied.
Statistically, he was the worst three-point shooter on the floor for the Buckeyes, but Craft decided he would be the man to launch the potential game-winning shot instead of Thomas, one of the best scorers in college basketball.
It worked out. Craft was the hero.
For a guy who has never been a great scorer—Craft averaged double figures (10 points per game) for the first time in his career last season—Craft acted the part of the superstar down the stretch of games.
In the final minute of regulation and overtime of Ohio State Buckeyes games that were decided by five points or less, Craft took 11 of 21 shots (52.4 percent). He took the final two shots against Iowa State, and he took the final three shots of an overtime loss at Michigan, the final attempt on a forced drive in the final seconds that missed.
Craft's offensive numbers suggest he's a role player, but as he begins his senior season in November, his status in the college basketball world is far from that.
He's the guy who it seems like he has been around forever. He's the guy people love to hate. (ESPN The Magazine's Wayne Drehs wrote an entire feature about why Craft is that guy.)
Is he worthy of such attention? Is Aaron Craft a star?
We usually don't search for stars on the defensive end of the court. A lock-down defender lacks the appeal of a chucker who scores a lot of points.
Yet to underestimate the importance of Craft's defense is missing the point. Anyone who thinks he's overrated needs to look at his impact on an entire program.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta has always had a respectable defense in Columbus, and Craft has taken Matta's defense to another level. In the three years he's had Craft at the top of that defense, the Buckeyes have gone from a good defensive team to an elite one.
Check out the rank of Ohio State's adjusted defensive efficiency throughout Matta's tenure. Adjusted defensive efficiency is a measure used by Ken Pomeroy and is the fairest way to compare defenses in college basketball.
|Year||OSU's Adj. Def. Rank|
*Rankings from KenPom.com (subscription needed).
A lot has been made about Craft's ability to force turnovers. Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn created a "Turnometer" to keep track of the turnovers created by Craft. Google "Aaron Craft pest" and it returns 23,100,000 results.
"He gets his hands on more balls for not only the guy he’s guarding but the post guys that get touches," Kansas coach Bill Self said during the Final Four in 2012. "I've never seen a guard with better hands at raking the ball out of bigs' hands than Aaron Craft."
In most cases, it would be hyperbole to credit the defensive improvement for a program to one guard, but Craft influences so much on the defensive end. He knows where to be and the pressure he applies on the ball can knock an offense out of sorts.
"He's the best defender in college basketball. There's nobody better than him," Matta told ElevenWarriors.com last season. "What makes him a tremendous defender is a desire to be a great defender. He wants to be a defensive stopper. He wants to be a pest to the opposing team. He wants to create chaos."
Craft's Offensive Evolution
In his first two seasons in Columbus, the Buckeyes didn't need much from Craft on the offensive end. They had Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Thomas to handle all the scoring.
Last season, however, the Buckeyes were lacking the offensive firepower they had in the past and needed someone to step up to complement Thomas. It turns out that LaQuinton Ross was probably the best candidate for that role, but Ross did not have the experience to take on that much responsibility. It was on Craft.
The results were not spectacular. Craft took more shots than he ever had and shot the worst percentages of his career. He made 36.8 percent of his threes his first two seasons when he only had to take wide open shots, and last year his three-point percentage dipped to 30 percent.
Luckily for Craft, it is not on him to inherit the offensive load of Thomas this upcoming season. Ross, who averaged 17.7 points over OSU's final three tourney games in 2013, should be ready to take on a starring role in the offense.
And while it is fair to point out that Craft's shooting numbers fell with more pressure put on him, his assist and turnover numbers were the best of his career.
Craft's ability to run a team has improved year to year. His defense is one of the most valuable attributes of any player in the country. He wins. The Buckeyes are 9-3 in the NCAA tournament in his career. And when it's time to take a big shot, Craft is willing.
So is Aaron Craft worthy of the "star" label? He has created a very important niche for the Buckeyes, and in his own way, Craft is absolutely a star.
All quotes, unless otherwise noted, were obtained firsthand.
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