NEW ORLEANS — As the rest of his teammates celebrated their Elite Eight victory over Syracuse last Sunday evening in Boston, Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft had more than just basketball on his mind.
The same day Craft helped Ohio State reach its first Final Four since 2007, his 23-year-old brother, Brandon, a member of the Army, left for his second deployment in Afghanistan.
Craft's family has yet to hear from Brandon about exactly where he is or whether he's safe, but the sophomore guard is trying to stay focused on Saturday's Final Four matchup with Kansas. After all, Brandon's message to Craft before he left was to enjoy the rest of the NCAA tournament and not to worry about him.
"I like to think I'm fighting for something pretty big, but when it comes down to it, he's fighting for something even bigger," Craft said. "I'm very proud of him for everything he has accomplished. Hopefully he can be safe over there and hopefully he knows my family thinks the world of him. He's a really great, awesome brother, and I wouldn't ask for anyone else."
Ohio State needs Craft to be at his best on Saturday because his matchup with Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor promises to be key. Taylor has emerged as a complementary threat to Thomas Robinson and a barometer for the Jayhawks' success, but Craft may be the nation's premier on-ball defender among point guards because of his quick hands and feet.
When Brandon left for Afghanistan the first time on the day Craft enrolled at Ohio State almost two years ago, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta noticed his point guard was often not the carefree, jovial kid he recruited. As a result, Matta reached out to Craft's father this time to formulate a plan to help Craft cope.
"The first time he was deployed, it really struck home with Aaron," Matta said. "He went through a down time. I called his father to make sure we were on the same page about how we can help him through it."
Craft credits some of his basketball success to spending so many years playing both with and against his older brother.
Since it was difficult for Craft to score a lot of points in pickup games against his brother and other older kids, the only way he felt he could consistently make an impact was with his defense. Defense quickly became such a strength for Craft that by his freshman year of high school, he was being asked to guard the opposing team's best player.
Craft's freshman year was special to him because it was the only year he got to play both basketball and football with Brandon. He said he learned from his brother by watching his work ethic, attitude and leadership on and off the court.
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Although Craft was the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year this season and a first-team All-Defensive Team member the past two years, he has also contributed to Ohio State's success with his offense. Craft recognized teams were sagging off him on defense, so he got more aggressive on offense in an effort to make opponents pay, a tactic that has resulted in him scoring in double figures in seven of Ohio State's last 11 games.
"Going back and watching film, I realized I can help our basketball team by being aggressive," Craft said. "Not just scoring but creating shots for other players. It helps because the other team has to respect me, whether it's in transition or in the half court."
Craft received a Facebook message from his brother this week congratulating him on helping Ohio State get to the Final Four, but he's not sure his brother will be able to follow Saturday's game. In the meantime, he has received an outpouring of support from friends telling him they're praying for his older brother.
"A ton of people I haven't talked to for a while have reached out," Craft said. "It's really comforting for everyone to show their appreciation and understanding because he's a big part of my life."
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