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CHICAGO -- Since Tom Izzo took over the program in 1995, Michigan State has been defined by defense, toughness, and timely shots. But on Saturday, those descriptors didn't suit the Spartans, so much as they did Ohio State's Aaron Craft.
Facing Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament's semifinals, the Buckeyes point guard stole the show like it was a mistimed pass, shutting down the Spartans on one end, while breaking their hearts on the other. Craft's efforts were enough to lead Ohio State to a 61-58 victory, advancing the second-seeded Buckeyes (25-7, 13-5) to a fifth consecutive Big Ten Championship Game on Sunday, where they'll face No. 4 seed Wisconsin (23-10, 12-6).
"Growing up in high school, the Big Ten was all about Michigan State," Craft said after the game. "You always get really excited when you play against a coach like Coach Izzo and guys like Keith Appling, and Adreian Payne, and Derrick Nix, and all those guys. You just gotta be a competitor and have fun in games like this."
The joy that Craft takes in facing the Spartans is seen evident in the box scores from his last two meetings with Izzo's squad.
On Feb. 24 in Columbus, Craft lit up Michigan State in a 68-60 OSU victory that saw him score a career-high 21 points while making seven layups against the Spartans. The Findlay, Ohio native's outing on Saturday was similar, but produced in a much different fashion.
After shooting an air-ball on his first shot attempt of the game, Craft headed to the locker room at halftime with just two points to his credit. The second half, however, was a different story as the first-team All-Big Ten selection made a variety of pull-up jumpers, set shots, and yes, even a couple of layups to bring his tally to a game-high 20 points.
"My first shot was an air-ball. That wasn't the greatest start to the game," Craft said. "A couple guys came up to me and said just keep being aggressive like the last time you played them. I got some open looks, I got some easy buckets, but obviously I was knocking down some pull-ups."
Craft's offensive outing came much to the dismay of Izzo, who for the second time in as many games against the Buckeyes saw the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder get the better of his team.
"We did not do a very good job on Craft, and he beat us in a different way," Izzo said. "The first time he beat us getting to the hole. He almost never got to the hole and this time he beat us with his jump shot."
With his 20-point effort today, the junior guard now finds himself averaging 13.3 points for the Buckeyes over the course of the past six games- all OSU victories. Paired with the Big Ten's leading scorer in Deshaun Thomas, Craft appears to have given Ohio State a dangerous one-two offensive punch as it heads into the NCAA Tournament.
"Everything is going a lot better when you're knocking down shots. It kind of relaxes everybody else, it takes pressure off of everyone, obviously D.T. doesn't have to do as much for us," Craft said. "It really helps us out and down the stretch and kind of opens things up."
If you need proof of just how valuable Craft can be as an offensive weapon can be for his teammates, look no further than the nine assists he dished out on Saturday. As a team, the Buckeyes assisted on 17 of their 24 field goals, and had four players score eight or more points against the Spartans.
And then there's his defense.
In what's become almost a given for the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Craft made his presence felt even when Ohio State didn't have the ball, recording four steals while helping hold Michigan State's Appling to a 6-of-17 shooting performance. All of the talk centered around his offense, but Craft understands how much better he can make his team when he affects the game on both ends of the floor.
"I'm probably always going to be known as a defensive player and I have no problem with that at all," Craft said. "But when I can knock down some easy shots, it not only helps me, it helps our entire team. It's not just about me trying to earn a name for myself, it helps makes our team do better, and that's what it's all about."
The offense hasn't always been there for Craft this season, especially during an eight-game stretch in the middle of the year that saw him fail to reach double-digit point totals seven times, while being held scoreless twice. Given what he brings to all other aspects of the game, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta never wavered when it came to keeping his team leader on the floor.
"He kind of makes us go on both ends of the floor, obviously when he's making shots," Matta said. "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."
Now that his offense is there, the Buckeyes find themselves as one of the hottest teams in the country heading into the one-and-done season that is March Madness. Matta knows that his team's current streak of seven consecutive wins wouldn't be possible without Craft's- offensive and defensive- nor will making a run at another Final Four appearance.
"He loves these type of games, there's no question about it. He's big for us," Matta said. "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."
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