College basketball fans would be hard-pressed to script a more heartbreaking way for Aaron Craft to end his college basketball career than what we saw against Dayton in the NCAA tournament Thursday.
In the round-of-64 game, Craft hit a reverse layup in the lane after contorting his body around a much larger defender to give Ohio State the one-point lead.
For a brief moment, he was a hero.
However, Vee Sanford answered right back for the Flyers and hit what ultimately proved to be the game-winning shot. The fact that Sanford’s shot came over Craft right before the Buckeye guard missed his subsequent attempt at the buzzer only makes the ending that much crueler.
It is easy to get caught up in the moment as sports fans and declare that Craft’s failure to hit the final shot and come through on the defensive end in the waning moments should impact how he is remembered.
What’s more, the point guard coughed the ball up five times against Dayton and didn’t control the tempo of the game like he typically does—something that was magnified by the NCAA tournament stage.
Letting this loss impact your opinion on Craft’s Ohio State legacy would be a mistake, though.
Just like we didn’t crown him the clutchest Buckeye of all time when he hit the game-winning three against Iowa State in last year’s NCAA tournament, we aren’t going to let this one contest paint him in a negative light.
If we are talking Ohio State history, Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek immediately come to mind.
More recently, Buckeyes fans have seen the likes of Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger and the combination of Mike Conley and Greg Oden—although being around only one year makes it hard to leave a legacy—grace the floor at the Schottenstein Center.
Craft deserves to be mentioned right alongside those names.
Comparing Craft to the typical all-time greats is difficult because his game is so different than almost everyone else's. He isn’t an effective outside shooter, he doesn’t wow the crowd with sky-walking dunks and he doesn’t blow past people in the open court with athleticism and speed.
What he does do is play lockdown defense, impact the game more than perhaps any other college basketball player without the ball and set up his teammates to succeed.
In fact, no player to ever don the scarlet and gray has dished out more assists than Craft (690), while only one player in the Big Ten since 1997-98 has topped that number. He probably would have totaled even more assists during his senior season had he played with a team that was capable of making a three-point shot on a consistent basis.
While the distinction as Ohio State’s best passer of all time (in terms of assists) is certainly noteworthy, Craft made his biggest mark on the record book on the defensive end.
No player in the history of the Big Ten registered more steals than Craft’s 333—not Havlicek, Magic Johnson or any of the other legendary players who spent their collegiate days in this storied conference.
In typical Craft fashion, he was rather humble when he broke the Big Ten steals record.
“I know I have to thank some people who didn’t stay for four years because if they would have, (the record) wouldn’t even be close to where I am right now,” he told Bob Baptist of The Columbus Dispatch.
Craft was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in two of the past three seasons and earned the admiration of Grantland's Shane Ryan over the course of his career:
Much of Craft’s “magic” impact on the game comes in the form of small things that don’t stand out in a box score. He draws charges, deflects passes, forces travels, spearheads a lethal full-court press and wrecks more opposing game plans than anyone else in college basketball.
What’s more, the cumulative impact of having to deal with Craft for 40 minutes often wears on the opposition's best player and allows the Buckeyes to win plenty of games down the stretch.
It’s not as if Craft hasn’t received recognition for his game either. His entire list of accomplishments is too long to list here, but he was the 2014 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, the 2011 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, the 2013 Big Ten Tournament MVP and was given a spot on the 2013 First Team All-Big Ten by the media.
He is also the only Buckeye to ever total more than 1,000 points, 500 assists and 250 steals, which is pretty impressive considering he is known as a scrappy defender who can’t score in so many circles.
College players don't score 1,300 points by accident.
Craft may not be the best Ohio State player of all time, but if we were to make a team that only consisted of players to wear the scarlet and gray, he would certainly have a spot.
All stats were Craft’s totals coming into the NCAA tournament and are courtesy of ESPN.com.