INDIANAPOLIS – Aaron Craft wanted the last shot. There would be no pass.
Driving downcourt with the clock draining, it was all up to the Ohio State senior guard. Rising up from about 22 feet to launch the potential tying 3-pointer against Michigan, this was his chance to erase a regrettable final few minutes.
He sat out for nearly nine late-game minutes with four fouls as the Buckeyes mounted a comeback – and when Thad Matta put him back in the lineup, everything went wrong. Down one with 2 minutes and 27 seconds left, Craft missed two free throws. Then he lipped out a wide-open 3-pointer that could have tied the game 56 seconds later.
But Craft had this one make-good moment, and he didn’t shy away from it. When you take ownership of team leadership, you also risk failure.
Bringing the ball up to shoot, it simply slipped out of his hands and spun in midair, out of reach as Ohio State ran out of time. The last shot never even happened, and the Wolverines had a last-second escape for the second straight day, and the Buckeyes failed to reach the Big Ten tournament title game for the first time in Craft’s four years.
“It sucks,” Craft said after Ohio State's 72-69 loss. “I’m more disappointed in myself than anything. Our team showed tremendous fight and resiliency tonight. It’s unfortunate the way it ended, and my part in it.”
For all the many people who hate Aaron Craft, here’s your chance to pile on.
You’re a strange, sad lot. You’ve got issues. Ripping a guy with a 3.9 grade-point average who plays his guts out is a weirdly trendy thing to do for college basketball fans.
But for those disposed to do so, congrats. Today is Bash Aaron Craft Day.
For those nine minutes Craft was out in the second half, the Buckeyes cut a seven-point deficit to one. For the game, Ohio State was a minus-9 with him on the floor, and a plus-6 without him. Matta can rightfully be second-guessed for putting Craft back in the game at the end because it took out high-flying Sam Thompson, who scored 11 points and had some spectacular plays during the Buckeyes’ comeback. They scored a single point in the final four minutes, losing momentum and a three-point lead in that time.
“You have to have him out there, no question about that,” Matta said of Craft. “… There was just possessions where you knew it was going to come down to the defensive end of it, and you want him in the game when the game is on the line defensively.”
Playing ride-or-die with Aaron Craft has been a pretty good coaching strategy for Matta over the years. The kid has been a key part of 119 victories, two Big Ten championships, two Big Ten tourney championships, and a Final Four. So playing him at the end of a close game with a lot riding on it makes sense. Coaches go with what’s comfortable and proven more than they go with their gut.
But part of the reason why Ohio State has struggled mightily to score this season is because Craft has struggled offensively. The 3-pointer he hit in the first half against Michigan was his first of the month, and just his third since Feb. 4. He’s 3-for-18 outside the arc over the Buckeyes’ last 11 games, and defenses now routinely play off him and dare him to shoot.
Craft made 38 percent of his 3s as a freshman and 36 percent as a sophomore, but plummeted to 30 percent last year and 31 percent this year. He’s starting to look like a golfer who has lost his putting stroke – tentative and hopeful instead of sure and confident.
The rest of his game is still very valuable. Craft had seven rebounds and six assists Saturday, to go with six boards and six dimes Friday against Nebraska. And he remains the best on-ball defender in the Big Ten, even though many were predicting his demise in that area before the season due to the new emphasis on freedom of movement.
Craft said at Big Ten media days in October that he would simply move his feet and keep his hands off players, and then he backed it up. He ranks 13th nationally in steal percentage at 4.5 percent, according to Ken Pomeroy, and he was the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second time. He’s only fouled out of one game this season.
Like a few Duke point guards of years past, Craft probably was overhyped by some media members – and part of that is probably racial. The gritty, heady white point guard is among the more over-celebrated entities in sports. So there has been some backlash from that.
There also is something of a Tebow Effect at work here – like Craft is too virtuous to tolerate. He is religious, though far less public about it than Tebow was. Maybe people are uncomfortable with all that virtue in one person.
But aside from a slight know-it-all streak (see: the video of Craft reciting pi to about 50 decimal places or him solving a Rubik's Cube in a minute) there isn’t much to find fault with the young man. He spreads the credit when Ohio State wins and takes the blame when Ohio State loses – in point of fact, fellow senior Lenzelle Smith was worse Saturday, making one shot and providing little else.
Craft does not get in trouble off the court. And he gives maximum effort every minute on the court.
“There’s nobody in the country who plays harder than he does,” Matta said.
He played hard Saturday. He did not play particularly well – certainly not well enough when it mattered most. If that’s reason enough to bash Aaron Craft, the haters have their opportunity today.
More college basketball coverage on Yahoo Sports: