On the day guard Aaron Craft enrolled at Ohio State two years ago, his brother, Brandon, enlisted in the Army.
And on the day Craft and the Buckeyes tipped off against Syracuse in the Elite Eight last weekend, Army infantryman Brandon Craft took off across the Atlantic for his second deployment in Afghanistan.
“He wishes he could watch and be here,” Aaron Craft said after Ohio State’s victory. “But he’s doing something more important, and it just keeps everything in perspective. … We really care, and we fight for basketball games. But he’s fighting for something bigger, and it’s for all of us.”
Aaron Craft hopes his brother will have access to a radio or television for the Buckeyes’ game on Saturday night against Kansas in the Final Four. In the last game Brandon saw on television, Aaron scored 11 points with five assists, four rebounds and tied his season high of six steals in 39 minutes in the Buckeyes’ 81-66 Sweet 16 win over Cincinnati.
“He did know that we won,” Craft said. “He’s getting inside information somehow. I hope I don’t get him in any trouble. … I don’t know where he is. I don’t know if he’d be able to tell me. The last time he went, he contacted us to let us know he was OK. We’re waiting for that.”
In the meantime, Craft will try not to be distracted by his brother’s circumstances and devote his attention to playing the Jayhawks, who beat Ohio State 78-67 in Lawrence on Dec. 10.
“The first time he went (to Afghanistan), he got hurt and had to come back,” Craft said. “I wasn’t prepared for it. When he came back, we did a lot more talking about it. He’s the first one to tell you, he wants me to focus on basketball. My teammates are right there with me. … I owe it to them to put everything aside and play my best basketball and play my role on this team.”
Craft’s role is the Buckeyes’ stopper at the top of the defense and playmaker at the head of the offense. A 6-foot-2 guard, Craft scores just 8.8 points per game, but he also averages 4.7 assists and 2.5 steals.
He has stepped it up in the NCAA Tournament with averages of 10.3 points, 5.8 assists, and 3.3 steals in four games, including his first career double-double in a win over Gonzaga with 17 points, 10 assists.
And unlike Kansas’ Jeff Withey, who was the Big 12 defensive player of the year because of his shot-blocking prowess, Craft was selected Big Ten defensive player of the year because of his pilfering ability. Craft’s 95 steals already have shattered Ohio State’s single-season record of 87 set by Mike Conley during 2006-07, when the Buckeyes last went to the Final Four.
“No player is safe when Aaron is on you,” Ohio State All-American forward Jared Sullinger said. “He puts the blue in blue collar.”
Craft will be matched up against Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor on Saturday night, and they battled to a draw when Kansas beat Ohio State 78-67 last January in Lawrence.
Craft scored 11 points, had six assists, three turnovers and two steals against the Jayhawks. Taylor, who was playing on a knee that would require arthroscopic surgery after the game, scored nine points and had 13 assists but was forced into seven turnovers, mostly by Craft.
“He was their catalyst in the first game, scoring the ball and distributing it,” Craft said of Taylor. “He’s a veteran guy who knows what it takes. He’s been around for a while. … He trusts in his teammates. He knows when to attack and when not to, and he never gets his head down.
“There are some games he turns the ball over quite a few times, but he always comes back and makes that next big play they need to win the game. That shows his resilience and how great of a player he is.”
Ohio State coach Thad Matta wouldn’t trade Craft for Taylor or any other point guard.
“He takes great pride in what he’s doing every single possession,” Matta said. “That’s why I’ve said it all year: He’s the best defender in college basketball.”
Craft credits his defensive prowess to being the son of a basketball coach and to playing basketball against his older brother.
“We would play one-on-one,” Craft said. “I couldn’t score too much because I was a lot smaller, but I could frustrate him if I was playing defense. That kind of is what I hung my hat on, and it carried over, and it’s something I enjoy doing. The goal of a good defensive player is to try to take another player out of his rhythm, and hopefully he doesn’t feel as comfortable as he does in other games.”
Syracuse guard Brandon Triche found out just how uncomfortable Craft can make an opponent.
“He’s just one of those guys who’s always up on you,” Triche said. “He’s good with his hands. He gets into the passing lane. He pretty much just makes it tough, sliding left and right. He’s one of those guys who never gives up.”