“Knock it down,” Craft said as he flicked a pass to the underclassman in the second half of Ohio State’s 61-58 win over Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament at United Center on Saturday.
That’s not an unusual command from the veteran point guard.
Craft excelled in his typical role for the Buckeyes throughout the win.
He was the orchestrator and the distributor (nine assists, two turnovers). He was also the thief (four steals).
His emergence as the scorer, however, seemed odd but necessary.
As Deshaun Thomas wrestled with a Michigan State defense that harassed him in the second half, Craft recognized the void.
So he took more shots. He scored on layups. He hit a 3-pointer. He made jumpers, too.
In all, Craft registered 18 of his 20 points in the second half of a win that guaranteed Ohio State’s fifth consecutive Big Ten tournament title game appearance -- the Buckeyes will play Wisconsin for the third time (1-1) this season.
“Just trying to believe in myself,” Craft said. “I think we have a lot of plays that we can execute that either get me open shots or I can help create for somebody else, and tonight I found some openings and was able to knock down some shots and that definitely opened up other things … whether it was Deshaun [Thomas] or guys like LaQuinton [Ross] that can knock down shots as well.”
In recent weeks, the chatter about college basketball’s hierarchy has centered on the fluctuation toward the top of the rankings. Duke, Gonzaga, Indiana, Kansas, Georgetown, Miami, Louisville and Michigan have been submitted as candidates for “the best team in America” discussion.
Meanwhile, Ohio State continues to add to one of the country’s most impressive current winning streaks. The Buckeyes have won seven in a row since suffering a 71-49 loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17.
They’ve beaten Michigan State twice since that loss. They’ve defeated Indiana in Bloomington. They won the other four games by double digits.
They’re quietly approaching the NCAA tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country.
“Man, Ohio State [doesn’t] get respect sometimes,” Thomas said. “But it’s all good, though. Just like last year. Nobody knew we were going to get to the Final Four and we did.”
But they nearly lost their mojo in Chicago.
They went 11-for-32 in the first half against the Spartans. But they were only down 29-28 after committing just two turnovers prior to the break (five turnovers overall).
And then, Craft happened.
He scored 13 points in the first 10-plus minutes of the second half. His 3-pointer with 11:48 to play gave Ohio State a 48-45 lead. His layup with 9:47 to go gave the Buckeyes a 51-47 advantage.
But the Spartans kept fighting. Keith Appling hit a 3-pointer that cut Ohio State’s lead to three points with 3:24 on the game clock. Nix’s layup and free throw, after he was fouled with 1:54 to go, reduced the deficit to one.
But Nix grabbed Craft on a drive at the 1:27 mark. Officials called it a flagrant foul.
And Craft made one of two free throws to extend Ohio State’s lead to two points.
Thomas (16 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists) came up with a crucial rebound in the last minute. And then he hit a runner with 22 seconds remaining in regulation. His shot -- he scored just five points after halftime -- extended Ohio State’s lead to four points (60-56).
Sam Thompson contested Keith Appling’s layup in the final seconds, which essentially secured the win. Thomas capped the game with another free throw (Denzel Valentine scored Michigan State’s final bucket).
Craft soothed his squad when Thomas struggled. He kept the Buckeyes in a rhythm even as Michigan State scored multiple buckets in the final minutes.
“You look at what he has accomplished thus far in his career at Ohio State and just the wins, the big plays that he's made …. In coaching, you don't get to coach a lot of guys like him just from A to Z and everything he stands for,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said after the game.
The Buckeyes could be a perplexing case for the selection committee (Joe Lunardi listed Ohio State as a No. 2 seed in his 6:45 p.m. ET projection on Saturday evening), especially if they beat the Badgers on Sunday. In early February, they were just perplexing. They lost three of their first four games last month.
Craft was 3-for-11 from the 3-point line during that stretch.
But Matta still trusted him.
“He kind of makes us go on both ends of the floor, obviously when he's making shots, but a lot of people panicked when he wasn't scoring in the middle of the season, and I'm like, I don't have a problem with it, it'll come,” he said.
Thomas couldn’t find the rim on Saturday. But he trusted Craft enough to suppress his personal offensive urges and allow his teammate to lead.
“Probably two years ago or last year, I probably would have been like ‘I need that ball, I need that ball’ and going crazy,” Thomas said. “Just me learning the game and being mature and knowing we’ve got guys who can plays also ... I trust [Craft] no matter what.”
Craft embraces the responsibility even if it demands more shots and fewer passes. The workload doesn’t matter.
The Buckeyes needed everything from their captain against the Spartans. He ran toward those expectations, not from them.
That’s why Ohio State is playing its best basketball right now. When it matters most.
“Everything is going a lot better when you’re knocking down shots,” he said. “It kind of relaxes everybody else. It takes pressure off everyone.”
And when Craft plays the way he did on Saturday, it puts more pressure on every team facing the Buckeyes.