Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
A look at the box score can tell you a lot about how Aaron Craft helped carry Ohio State past Michigan State.
It can tell you he had 21 points on 58 percent shooting; that 17 of those points came in a furious second-half comeback.
It will tell you he connected on 7-of-8 free throws, some of which helped the Buckeyes’ secure a 68-60 win down the stretch.
It’ll tell you his efforts willed OSU (20-7, 10-5 Big Ten) to its second win in nine tries against ranked opponents.
The statline can tell you most of what you need to know about Craft’s performance Sunday.
But it can’t show you everything.
It can’t show you how Craft, known more for his defensive prowess, charged through seams before throwing his body toward the glass for layup after layup.
It won’t show you how his six assists set up looks for the likes of sophomore forwards Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross.
Statistically, it’s clear how Craft’s outing powered coach Thad Matta’s crew to the win.
The facts and figures confirm why he’s important, why some pegged him as the player to be OSU’s second-most potent scorer behind junior forward Deshaun Thomas.
But they don’t necessarily reflect just how much Craft could mean to Matta’s squad heading into the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments if he can come close to replicating Sunday’s performance.
Sunday might have been an early omen with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s crew the first casualty.
“He beat us every way you could beat us,” Izzo said after the game. “It was a joint effort. It wasn’t one guy who did not cover those ball screens very well.”
Craft said OSU saw blemishes in the Michigan State veneer.
“Michigan State is a big pressure team and they really thrive off of turnovers and things like that, so that’s who they are,” he said. “And that’s what you come into the game expecting. You can’t change too much to your identity, especially this late in the year. We just took advantage.”
OSU did exactly that, turning the ball over nine times compared to the Spartans’ 14 miscues.
For Craft’s part, he had just two turnovers.
But Matta said Craft’s reads on the court were perhaps the game’s biggest key.
“His teammates helped him to get much better spacing than we normally have,” he said. “He attacked the rim well and had a lot of shots going in.”
Conversely, Thomas struggled to score throughout the contest – particularly in the first half where he had just two points.
The Big Ten’s leading scorer, though, said he trusted Craft to get buckets.
“I’m excited for him. Everybody always say, sometimes come to me, and criticize Craft’s offense. But, you know what, I have faith in his offense and I believe in him,” Thomas said. “And it’s good for him to come out and score and attack those guards and bigs like that.
“A lot of people talked about, oh there’s only one player who can score. To me, in my eyes, everybody can score on this team.”
It’s a concept that has plagued the Buckeyes all season. While players have often rotated the role as Thomas’ scoring sidekick, the need for consistent production outside of the Fort Wayne, Ind., native has eluded OSU.
Against the Spartans, that problem didn’t exist thanks to Craft.
“I don’t care who’s scoring, putting the ball in the bucket, as long we come out with more points,” Craft said.
Perhaps most notably is the juxtaposition between the Buckeyes outing against the Spartans compared to the performance they put on against Wisconsin in a 22-point loss in Madison a week earlier.
“This is big for this basketball team, we kind of picked ourselves up from a week ago,” Craft said.
OSU will try to carry that momentum when it plays Northwestern Thursday in Evanston, Ill. Tip is set for 7 p.m.