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Ohio State’s Aaron Craft relishes role as defender

Aaron Craft impressed teammate Jared Sullinger (0) when he dove to save a ball from going out of bounds in the Buckeyes’ win over Gonzaga.

Jason Cohn/Reuters

Aaron Craft impressed teammate Jared Sullinger (0) when he dove to save a ball from going out of bounds in the Buckeyes’ win over Gonzaga.

Building the identity started years ago, when Aaron Craft would join his older brother, Brandon, and some of Brandon’s friends for pickup basketball games in Findlay, Ohio. Younger and smaller, Craft wouldn’t score many points those days, if any. Big brothers typically don’t allow it, especially in front of their friends.

So Craft found another way to make the older boys notice him. He’d make life miserable for Brandon or whoever else he was guarding, the clingy kind of defender nobody enjoys going against. Especially big brothers.

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“I could frustrate him if I was playing defense,’’ Craft said. “So that’s what I hung my hat on, and it carried over. It’s something I enjoy doing. I take great pride in it.

“Being able to play with those older guys and holding my own, I think that’s definitely where the defensive side of my game started, and a little bit of toughness came from, as well.’’

It may have had its beginning on the asphalt courts in northwest Ohio, but Craft’s calling card continues a bit more prominently today, for the Buckeyes. The sophomore point guard knows his role for Ohio State, and embraces it. On a team with enough offensive star power to light up Zakim Bridge, Craft isn’t nearly as famous as teammates Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, or even William Buford.

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Because of his defense, perhaps he should be.

The feisty 6-foot-2-inch spark plug is the player maybe most responsible for putting the Buckeyes in the opportunistic position they find themselves. Ohio State (30-7) faces Syracuse (34-2) Saturday night at TD Garden in the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional final, with the winner advancing to New Orleans and the Final Four.

As always, Craft will devote every last ounce of his ability to get the second-seeded Buckeyes past the top-seeded Orange, determination and focus wrapped in quick feet, quicker hands, a nose for the ball, and the pleasure that comes from the challenge of defending the other team’s best guard.

The soul of the Buckeyes will have part of his heart a world away from the Garden, though. Brandon Craft, an infantryman with the US Army, is making his first deployment to Afghanistan Saturday. Based in Washington state, the 22-year-old hasn’t been able to catch many of Craft’s games this season, but he watched Thursday, when his younger sibling scored all 11 of his points in the final 10:23, leading Ohio State past Cincinnati, 81-66.

Phone conversations between the brothers took place after the Cincinnati game, and again Friday. Brandon might not be close when Craft participates in the biggest game of his life Saturday night, but he won’t be far from his thoughts.

“Obviously I’m going to worry a little bit, but I think he’d be the first one to tell you that you shouldn’t worry,’’ Aaron Craft said. “He’s been trained, and that’s the path he chose. He wants me to focus on basketball as much as possible, and continue to enjoy what I’m going through.

“We wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing if guys like him weren’t making the sacrifices that they are.’’

But the thought of his brother taking on such a potentially dangerous assignment?

“It’s become a little more real and more eye-opening ever since he enlisted and the opportunity came for him to be deployed. Just understanding how big of a deal it is, and how much we owe to them . . . to have opportunities like this, to play in the Elite Eight, it gives you perspective on things. We really care and we fight for basketball games, but he’s fighting for something bigger. It’s for all of us.’’

Craft’s a fighter, too. A small man playing a big man’s game, any on-court skill he lacks has been compensated by a strong will and a lifetime of producing when others maybe looked and said he wouldn’t.

“Winner. That would be the word that I would use,’’ Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “He came to Ohio State and I think he kind of assessed the situation that he was walking into and said, ‘What do I have to do to help this basketball team win?’ He said, ‘I’m going to defend and I’m going to take care of the basketball, and I think I’ll have an opportunity to play.’ ’’

Craft started just one game for the Buckeyes as a freshman, when he averaged 6.9 points and 4.9 assists off the bench, despite getting starter’s minutes (29.6). His work was recognized, though. Craft was named the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year, and made the conference’s all-freshman team.

He’s started all 37 games this season, and seen his numbers improve to 8.9 points a game, while also setting Ohio State’s season record for steals. He added six in the win against the Bearcats, and now has 94.

He might be able to hit a timely shot, but it’s his defense that can change a game. It’s what caught Matta’s eye when he was recruiting Craft, who was a two-sport star at Liberty-Benton High School. An all-state quarterback, Craft could have pursued football, but didn’t give it much thought. He knew what he wanted.

“Any time anyone asked I always told them I was a basketball player, just because I’d been playing it longer,’’ Craft said. “Football was great, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. But I realized this is what I wanted to do, this is kind of my passion.’’

Craft ended up at Ohio State after initially committing to Tennessee. That plan changed after then-Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl was fired after lying to NCAA investigators about rules violations that occurred when he hosted potential recruits at his house and was photographed with them. One of the recruits was Craft.

Pearl’s loss has been Matta’s gain. It’s hard to imagine Ohio State being a win away from the Final Four without their pesky point guard, who gets it done just as well in the classroom as he does on the court. Craft was recently named a first-team Academic All-American, and took home Big Ten defensive player of the year honors this season, as well.

“Intelligence and desire, he has both of those, and obviously some God-given abilities,’’ Matta said. “He takes great pride in what he’s doing every single possession. I’ve said it all year, he’s the best defender in college basketball.’’

In a few hours, Craft and the Buckeyes will take to the TD Garden floor, with Syracuse standing in the way of a spot in the national semifinals. He’ll be focused on the Orange guards, naturally, but don’t be surprised if he takes a moment and says a prayer for his brother. And for a trip to the Final Four.

“It would mean a lot. You think about it and you follow it ever since you were a little kid,’’ Craft said. “I’ll just try to set a good example. Play hard defense, score when I need to, get the ball in guys’ hands. We’re enjoying the moment, enjoying the journey, and doing it together.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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