Aaron Craft is Ohio State’s fearless leader

Ohio State guard Aaron Crafts splits two Arizona defenders for a basket in the first half Thursday night.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

He not only made the winning pass, he ordered the winning basket.

That is how Aaron Craft rolls, either into your heart or under your skin, his tiny hands rummaging deep into the pockets of March, his rosy cheeks squarely in America’s face.

With two seconds remaining in a deadlocked, chaotic NCAA West Regional semifinal at Staples Center on Thursday night, Ohio State guard Craft flipped the ball to open teammate LaQuinton Ross with instructions.


“Knock it down!” he shouted above the roar, just before Ross launched a three-point shot whose swish gave the Buckeyes a 73-70 victory over Arizona.

BOX SCORE: Ohio State 73, Indiana 70

Craft later smiled, saying, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to tell these guys what to do.”

He’s funny. He’s frantic. He’s fearless. His boyish crew cut makes him look as if he’s 15, he plays as if he were the last guy picked, yet he is leading a collection of Columbus roughnecks into Saturday’s regional final against Wichita State, with a good chance to advance to their second consecutive Final Four.

“We’re the toughest team in college basketball, and it starts with Aaron Craft,” teammate Lenzelle Smith Jr. said after the Buckeyes celebrated their second consecutive last-second tournament win.

It not only starts with the 6-foot-nothing junior guard, it sometimes almost ends with him. Craft is the most visible remaining player in this tournament less because of how he looks than how he plays, always on the edge, pushing the envelope to the point of a paper cut.

He’s smooth. But then he trips. He’s inspirational. But sometimes he aggravates. He’s completely unselfish under pressure, but totally undaunted enough to grab the spotlight. On Thursday he forced many of Arizona’s 11 turnovers by sticking his body on to the ball or floor or opponent. Yet he also helped Ohio State fall into an 11-point deficit by missing several layups — he was just three-for-nine shooting — and he nearly changed the game late by dribbling the ball off his foot out of bounds.

“But we all know one thing happens when Craft makes a mistake,” said Smith. “We all know he finds a way to get the ball and make up for it.”

And so it happened that Thursday night, less than a week after hitting a game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds to beat Iowa State, Craft was dribbling upcourt in the final seconds of this tie game. Even though the team’s best shooter, Deshaun Thomas, was standing nearby, Craft was in control, and was all set to take the shot again when he noticed something different.

That’s another thing about this premed student with the 3.9 grade-point average and an ability to do a Rubik’s Cube in less than two minutes. He always notices something different.

Arizona messed up a defensive coverage. Craft dribbled off a pick and expected to see the Wildcats switch but then noticed that two players were covering him and nobody was really covering Ross. He changed his entire plan in less than a second. He flipped the ball to the lanky sophomore Ross, ordered the shot, then moments later sort of shrugged his way back to the celebrating sidelines.

“They didn’t communicate very well,” he said of the Wildcats. “I made the right read and LaQuinton knocked it down.”

If it sounds as if he’s cocky, well, he’s not. He’s just smart and perceptive and willing to be accountable. He not only talked about the winning shot, but also errors like his late foul far from the basket that could have changed the game.

“I’m not perfect, I miss layups. I make mistakes, I do things to really hurt my team, I know that,” he said. “But it’s always a next-play mentality for me ... you just keep going at ‘em.”

Listening to him answering endless questions in front of his locker while his knees were wrapped in ice and his right hand was fiddling with his mouthpiece Thursday, it became obvious what is so different about Aaron Craft. He is that rare big-time college basketball player who is actually a college kid.

He looks like one, talks like one, and seemingly experiences the madness like one.

“This whole thing is crazy,” he said of the NCAA tournament. “The experiences we get as college athletes are amazing. I’m trying to have fun, because we won’t get opportunities like this very often. I mean, really, amazing.”

As he spoke in the Lakers’ locker room, he was reminded that he was dressing in the cubicle currently used by another interesting point guard named Steve Nash.

“Steve Nash, really? I swear, I just put my stuff here, I didn’t know,” he said with the wonderful laugh of a wide-eyed 21-year-old. “But tell you what, I’ll take any sort of magic I can get.”