Aaron Craft and Ohio State Making Final Stand After Crucial Road Win over Iowa

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Aaron Craft and Ohio State Making Final Stand After Crucial Road Win over Iowa
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After picking up a huge 76-69 victory over Iowa on Tuesday night, it would appear we wrote off Aaron Craft and the Ohio State Buckeyes far too soon.

When the Midseason Top 25 was announced for the Wooden Award in late January, it was just the latest time that Craft was given the benefit of the doubt. In the four games prior to the announcement, Craft had committed 19 turnovers while tallying just 19 assists. Ohio State lost all four games.

Yet there he was, allegedly one of the 25 players most deserving of eventually being crowned the best in the country.

Even his biggest fan knew people would argue he didn't belong.

Bless his heart, Craft didn't ask to become the most polarizing player in the game any more than Tim Tebow did. But people like ESPN's Dan Dakich have been showering him with so much endless praise over the past three years that we simultaneously grew tired of hearing about him while expecting him to put up great statistics.

No, his numbers weren't great prior to Tuesday night. But they were pretty much exactly what we've come to expect from him over the last two-plus seasons.

Aaron Craft's Statistics
Season Points Assists Steals Rebounds
2011-12 8.8 4.6 2.5 3.2
2012-13 10.0 4.6 2.1 3.6
2013-14 (thru Feb. 1) 9.1 4.8 2.4 3.5

ESPN.com

But against the Hawkeyes, though, Craft was Mr. Wonderful.

Craft had six assists, six steals and three rebounds to go along with 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting—pretty doggone efficient compared to Marshall Henderson's night of 16 points on 6-of-18 shooting for Ole Miss against Kentucky.

Aside from the rebounds, he led the team in each of those categories. He had undeniably his best game of the season on a night when the team needed it most.

The win was Ohio State's second consecutive road victory over a ranked opponent. Not too shabby for a team that entered that pair of games with five losses in a span of six games, including most recently a loss at home against Penn State.

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At the end of January, it looked as though the Buckeyes were trying to play their way out of the NCAA tournament. We're only four days into February, and we have to at least wonder if they're returning to the team that spent five straight weeks ranked as the No. 3 team in the nation.

Despite the struggles in January, they've clawed their way back to a .500 record in Big Ten play—which has been no easy task over the past decade. Better yet, they just won the two most difficult games that were left on the calendar. Home games against Michigan and Michigan State will certainly be challenging, but they're also quite winnable.

In fact, according to KenPom's projections (subscription required), Ohio State will be the favorite (maybe not in Vegas) in each of its remaining eight games. It's not completely crazy to think that this team that struggled so mightily in January could actually finish the regular season with 10 consecutive wins to get back in contention for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

If I had written that last sentence right after the loss to the Nittany Lions, I probably would have been drug-tested.

On Monday, Craft told Eric Seger of The Lantern, "Our biggest focus right now is to find a way to be better than Iowa. Everything else will really take care of itself the more we go on."

Now that they have beaten Iowa, the Buckeyes are back in business.

On Tuesday night, the nation's best three-point defense held a pretty good shooting Hawkeyes team to just nine points from behind the arc despite 20 three-point attempts. The team with the fourth-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country held Iowa to just 69 points, even though Iowa has spent most of the season in the top 10 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency.

Matthew Holst/Getty Images

And it all started with Craft.

Even Jay Z would have been impressed with how much of a hustler Craft was in this game. He officially only had six steals, but if half-steals existed, he would have tallied a couple of those for forcing bad passes that turned into steals for other Buckeyes.

Ohio State is still looking for a consistent source of points. Craft was the leading scorer, but that's not his game. LaQuinton Ross has scored 13 points in each of the last two games, but the team is still adjusting to life after Deshaun Thomas.

But if the Buckeyes can keep getting these kinds of defensive efforts out of Craft (spoiler alert: they will), they won't need too much offense to make a deep run in the tournament.

And, who knows, perhaps we'll even come to agree that Craft really is one of the 25 best players in the nation.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of KenPom.com (subscription required).

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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