Being in the same recruiting class with the likes of Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger, Ohio State senior guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. might have been a bit overshadowed initially among Buckeye fans.
Thomas and Sullinger — both five-star products out of high school — were big pieces of the OSU squads who made trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons. But they’ve since moved on to play professionally, and even though Craft and Smith Jr. might have been second-tier then — they’ve certainly left their mark on the program.
“Both guys, you look at how many games they’ve won here, championships they’ve been a part of, it’s really an amazing four years,” OSU coach Thad Matta said Friday, two days before the Buckeyes are scheduled to take on No. 22 Michigan State in what will be the final home game of the regular season. “I think with that said, both guys have had a major impact on this program in terms of making it better. And that’s what we ask guys to do.”
Craft and Smith Jr. were the fastest players in school history to record 100 wins, reaching that milestone in just 119 games after OSU beat North Florida 99-64 Nov. 29.
Craft, Smith Jr. and the rest of the Buckeyes have had some tough and exciting contests against the Spartans recently.
Last season, the Buckeyes beat Michigan State 61-58 in the Big Ten Tournament, but fell in the two teams previous meeting this season in East Lansing, Mich., 72-68 in overtime in their first lost of the season. With a familiar opponent on the docket for their final home game at OSU, Craft said he wouldn’t rather it be against anyone else.
“I honestly don’t think there could be a better way to play our last game here. I’ve loved playing against Michigan State,” Craft said Friday. “Since freshman year we’ve always had great battles with them. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m excited to see what we can do as a team going into this game.”
For Smith Jr., however, the game against the Spartans means something a little differently because of the friendships he’s formed with members of Michigan State’s team.
“It’s actually kind of the sweet but not so sweet moment. Just seeing as how I’m so close to some of those guys on the team,” Smith Jr. said Friday. “We’ve hung out in the summer, we went to the Big Ten media days in Chicago … We talked, had fun and it’s different when you see them on the opposite side of the court. It’s like, ‘I’m not here to be your friend, don’t even talk to me.’”
Craft enters the game as OSU’s all-time leader in steals and assists with 293 and 623 respectively, and with numbers like those is likely to be remembered fondly in Buckeye lore. But he said he doesn’t think about being in the same breath as former players like David Lighty, Mike Conley Jr., Greg Oden or Scoonie Penn.
“I just don’t feel comfortable putting myself in close to the same categories of guys that (have) come before,” Craft said. “I’m just very honored and humbled to continue on what they’ve established here. And to play a very small part of that.”
Aside from it being Craft and Smith Jr.’s final go around at the Schottenstein Center, the game against the Spartans (23-7, 12-5, 3rd in the Big Ten) holds implications for next week’s Big Ten Tournament. OSU (22-8, 9-8 tied for fifth in the Big Ten) sits one game behind Nebraska for fourth place in the conference, and would need a victory against the Spartans and some help to finish in that spot and earn a first-round bye in the tournament.
OSU has lost two straight games, falling on the road last week to Penn State and Indiana. Matta said no matter where they finish in the standings, a win against Michigan State would certainly be a step in the right direction.
“This is our 18th Big Ten game, and 16 of them have been tooth and nail and down to the last couple minutes,” Matta said. “With that said, you’re playing a team that’s obviously a great basketball team. It’s a great opportunity for us to come out and close out the final game of the season.”
As OSU searches for any bit of momentum it can get its hands on as the season draws to a close, Smith Jr. agreed with Matta and said a victory Sunday would be key to build that.
“We can get a lot of momentum here with a win on Sunday to carry us over into the Big Ten Tournament,” Smith Jr. said. “We can get that going, and if we get hot at the right time, that’s the name of the game. You want to play your best basketball toward this time of the season and I think we can accomplish that.”
Matta has gone on record as saying he would get behind putting up a statue commemorating Lighty’s accomplishments and what he’s meant to the program outside the arena. The same would go for Craft and Matta said he would want to “put it right next to David.”
When Craft was told his head coach said that about him, though, he naturally spun it back to be more of a team oriented affair.
“Legacy and all that stuff, it’s not about me, it’s not about Lenzelle. It’s about this university and the things we’ve been able to do as a team, whether it’s putting a year up on the banners in the gym,” Craft said. “That’s what’s going to be remembered. That’s what should be remembered.”
Tipoff between the Buckeyes and Spartans is set for 4:30 p.m. Sunday.