Not many players in college basketball had a better week than Ohio State’s Aaron Craft.
First, the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year spearheaded a 71-45 romp over Minnesota with six points, four assists, three rebounds and three steals while helping hold the Gophers’ backcourt to 4 of 21 shooting.
On Sunday, Craft exploded for a career-high 21 points to lead No. 18 Ohio State over No. 4 Michigan State 68-60.
As important as the points were, the 6-foot-2 junior’s work against MSU point guard Keith Appling might have been bigger. Appling was held to 1 of 6 shooting with three turnovers and one assist in 34 minutes.
“Craft tore us apart,’’ Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He beat us every way you could beat us.’’
Still, neither of those games was the highlight.
That came when the Findlay, Ohio, product learned he had been named men’s basketball’s academic All-American of the year. He has a 3.92 grade average in nutrition as a pre-medicine major, and was a first-team academic All-American last season, too.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta sounded like a proud papa on Monday in praising Craft.
“If you’re a parent and want your kids to be successful,’’ Matta said, “you ought to look at how he was raised and what he brings on a daily basis as a student, as an athlete and as a person in the Ohio State community.’’
As much as Craft is an All-American to Buckeye fans, followers of other teams despise him. His disruptive style of play and the belief that he fouls regularly without getting called for it often make him a flashpoint.
Matta chuckled when asked if Craft is as big a pain defensively in practice as he is in games.
“He is,’’ the coach said, “and I say that in the most complimentary way. Aaron brings it every single day. What you see in a game is what you see in practice. Sometimes we have to pull him out and sit him down because he goes so hard in everything.’’
The good news for teammates about practicing against Craft, the school’s all-time steals leader, is that games tend to be easier than scrimmages.
“Nobody in the country can defend like he can,’’ Matta said. “So he makes our guys better.’’
Ohio State is safely in the NCAA tournament, but the victory that Craft sparked over Michigan State was a significant résumé-polisher. OSU entered that game 18-0 against unranked opponents and 1-7 against ranked foes.
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