He did not turn water into wine at Ohio State’s team dinner Tuesday, but that could be because the Buckeyes are on a business trip.
‘Tis the season for shining moments, singing praises and rising stars. Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft hates that kind of stuff, by the way, but Craft has been so good — and so important to his team’s success — that even the highest of hyperbole and most outlandish of comparisons have a chance to stick. It’s not a stretch to say the face of March Madness, thus far, has the cheeks to match the trim on his Buckeyes jersey.
Craft has been at the forefront of a total transformation over the last five-plus weeks for a Buckeyes team that’s won 10 straight games heading into its West regional semifinal vs. Arizona on Thursday. When Arizona coach Sean Miller said earlier this week that Craft was becoming college basketball’s version of former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, it may have made some people cringe.
It certainly wasn’t a stretch.
“Tebow at Florida, it wasn’t just his performance on the field,” Miller said. “(It was) who he was as a person, the leadership that he provided, the competitive spirit he embodied. It seemed to spread through Florida’s football team, and Aaron Craft does the same thing for Ohio State basketball.”
Miller wasn’t first to say it. Tebow is a hot-button name for many reasons, but in his time as quarterback at the University of Florida he became so widely known at first because his teams were almost always winning. Craft has Ohio State two wins from a second straight Final Four, and that kind of winning invites further inspection from the curious, adoring — and sometimes the opposite — public.
Like Tebow, Craft appears to be as squeaky-clean and caring as advertised. Like Tebow was (and is), Craft’s work on the field has brought him to a point that Ohio State fans love him and opposing fans love to hate him. By now, casual fans know him, and know he’s often on the winning side.
He’s admired by many. He’s loathed by many. Maybe the most telling sign? He’s respected by all.
“Part of what makes him such a special basketball player is who he is as a person,” Miller said. “He’s a 4.0 student. He’s an incredible leader, as a great of a competitor as you will find. … he (is) all the things that you can say to give him incredible respect.”
Sometime last week, Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, who coached Tebow at Florida, sent a text message to Ohio State basketball coach Thad Matta that said Meyer wanted Craft for the Buckeyes football team.
Matta replied: “Don’t even try it.”
Not long after Craft’s game-winning, 3-pointer vs. Iowa State last Sunday that sent the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16, Matta was mentioning that Ohio State should some day build a statue of Craft. Meyer has said similar about Tebow on many occasions.
Tebow did it with that funky, left-handed throwing motion, the jump pass at the goal line and the hundreds of television camera shots that captured his intensity and helped grow the legend.
Craft does it with a jump shot that’s anything but pretty, a relentlessness that never stops and a propensity to show up in those cutaway camera shots having just drawn a foul or scrapped to retain possession in a pile of people. When he takes out his mouthpiece to let out a joyous scream, it’s simply emotion, not self-promotion.
Craft recently got a ‘B’ in a class, dropping his overall grade-point average to a little over 3.9. On the bus ride back to Columbus after the Iowa State game, he studied for an organic chemistry test. His profile is growing faster than ever, now, though, for what he’s doing on the court.
His recent scoring surge has brought his season average to 10 points per game, but Craft never seems concerned with scoring a single point. He had 18 points and 6 assists in that Iowa State game, two nights after scoring just 4 points but dishing out 7 assists and recording 6 steals in the Buckeyes’ tournament-opening win over Iona. He averages 2.1 steals per game on the season, and coaches across the country have said he’s among the best defenders they’ve ever seen.
The assertion made last month by a Michigan newspaper writer that “Craft receives recognition beyond his abilities for reasons most are afraid to say — he’s a rosey-cheeked white guy,” seems even more absurd now than it did then.
Craft just keeps making plays, keeps raising his game and keeps maximizing his ability.
Though this is his third NCAA tournament, Craft could still be considered its breakout star. He’s never been a scorer or the poster child for anything but floor burns, and the game-winner vs. Iowa State’s was a rare moment in which Craft grabbed the spotlight with an offensive play. Those watching the game didn’t see an attention-grabbing celebration from Craft after his shot went in; instead, they saw Craft rallying teammates, imploring them to realize Iowa State still might have time for one final shot to tie the game.
Asked after the game, he said he grew up envisioning himself making a defensive play to win that kind of big game.
“I’m in the backyard,” Craft said, “and 3, 2, 1, I’m taking a charge.”
Too perfectly humble to be true, except that he is.
“Every kid dreams of moments like that,” Craft said. “I’m just very blessed to be in this situation with this group of guys. Like I said, it’s great to come through for them, and it’s great we can continue to play more basketball.”
He sounds like that Tebow guy.
If Ohio State keeps winning, maybe he’ll get that statue. Ohio State can afford an artist who accentuates the rosey cheeks.