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Aaron Craft ready to play more of an attacking role

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UNION, N.J. — The knock on Ohio State for much of the 2012-2013 season was that they relied far too much on Deshaun Thomas on the offensive end of the floor. They didn’t have a second option, and on the nights when Thomas wasn’t hitting his shots, the Buckeyes weren’t winning games.

That changed down the stretch of the season, however.

Ohio State won their last five regular season games before taking home the Big Ten tournament title and coming within a game of making the Final Four, a feat that no one thought possible last January. The reason for that surge? The play of point guard Aaron Craft, who became a much more aggressive player on the offensive end of the floor over the last month-and-a-half of the season. He had 21 points and six assists in a regular season win over Michigan State. He went for 15 points, four assists and four steals in a win over Indiana. He had 20 points, nine assists and four steals against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. He went for 18 points and six assists — including the game-saving charge and game-winning three — in a win over Iowa State to reach the Sweet 16.

And if the Buckeyes are going to make a run at a Big Ten regular season title in 2013-2014, they are going to need that kind of play out of Craft the entire season.

“I’ve gotta continue to lead the team, the biggest thing [to improve on] would be being aggressive on offense,” Craft told NBCSports.com at the Nike Skills Academy on the campus of Kean University. “Without having a guy like DT where you can throw him the ball and let him do his thing. We’re going to have to find a way to create shots and get open ones, so if I can attack better, I think it will help us out.”

And therein lies the biggest question mark when it comes to the Buckeyes next season. As good as Craft is, his entire career at Ohio State has been built around his leadership and his defense. He’s not a dynamic playmaker, he’s a facilitator. He picks his spots well and he’s aggressive when he needs to be, but he hasn’t been the kind of point guard that can beat his man one-on-one and create a shot for himself or his team on any possession. He’s not Trey Burke.

But there were times where he was as effective as Burke was last season, especially late in the regular season, and it’s those moments that Craft will be looking to build off of.

“Guys like Kyrie [Irving] are always in attack mode,” Craft said. “It’s not always for him to score, it’s for everybody. It’s for his entire team, whether he’s getting a good shot or he’s helping somebody else get a good shot. Just trying to be aggressive and be in attack mode, not trying to go to fast but to make quick decisions. We can make adjustments from there.”

The good news is that there will be some talent surrounding Craft next season. Shannon Scott showed flashes of serious potential as a sophomore. Lenzelle Smith has some big scoring games. LaQuinton Ross played his way into some 2014 mock drafts with his play in the postseason.

None of those guys have shown any kind of consistency, however.

Craft has.

Which is ironic, really.

While Scott, Ross and Smith will be looking to improve their consistency next year, Craft, who has built a career out of consistently playing at a high level, will be looking to break out of his mold.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

No. 14 West Virginia takes care of No. 15 Baylor

West Virginia forward Devin Williams (41) dunks the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor, Saturday, Feb, 6, 2016, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)
AP Photo/Raymond Thompson
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Not exactly noted for their ability to knock down shots from the perimeter, No. 14 West Virginia grabbed sole possession of first place in the Big 12 thanks in part to their perimeter shooting. The Mountaineers shot 7-for-14 from three and 49.1 percent from the field in a 80-69 win over No. 15 Baylor that wasn’t as close as the final margin would lead one to believe.

Bob Huggins’ team led by as much as 19 in the second half, and the way in which they did it is what makes the win so impressive. “Press Virginia” yielded just ten Baylor turnovers, but that low number didn’t matter much thanks to West Virginia’s execution offensively.

They found quality looks against Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone in the first half and made them at a good clip, forcing Scott Drew to switch to man-to-man. That change didn’t do much to slow down West Virginia either, as Daxter Miles Jr. scored 20 points and sixth man Jaysean Paige added 17 off the bench. And with Devin Williams chipping in with 16 points and seven boards in the post, outplaying Baylor’s Rico Gathers Sr. (five points, seven rebounds), West Virginia grabbed control of the game in the first half and did not relinquish it.

The usual formula for West Virginia offensively is to attack the offensive glass, as their offensive rebounding percentage (43 percent) is tops in the country. “Their best offense is a missed shot” is a familiar refrain heard when people discuss the Mountaineers, who entered the game shooting just over 30 percent from three.

They didn’t need to lean on those second chances as heavily as they normally do Saturday night, not only because of the improved accuracy but also the improved work in finding shots. The ball moved against the Baylor defense and so did the players, resulting in an offensive attack that proved tougher for the visiting Bears to stop that one would expect given the statistics entering the game.

West Virginia was already established as a contender in the Big 12, but thanks to their win Saturday night the Mountaineers are the current pace setters. With a showdown at No. 7 Kansas set for Tuesday night, this was a big win for Bob Huggins’ team to get. And with it coming in spite of a low turnover (forced) count, this should only help West Virginia in the confidence department moving forward.

No. 22 Indiana falls at Penn State

Penn State's Shep Garner (33) moves towards the basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana in State College, Pa., Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
(AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
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Brendan Taylor scored 24 points to lead Penn State to a 68-63 upset of No. 22 Indiana on Saturday night.

The Nittany Lions were 2-8 in Big Ten play entering the weekend. Indiana? They were 9-1 and tied for first in the conference. It’s the second loss in four games for the Hoosiers following a 7-0 start to Big Ten play, a fact made all the more concerning by the fact that their league schedule is finally about to get difficult.

The Hoosiers play No. 5 Iowa at home and No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing next week. The following week they get No. 18 Purdue at home. In the final week of the regular season, Indiana squares off with No. 5 Iowa on the road and close the regular season with a visit from No. 4 Maryland.

That’s a lot of good teams that the Hoosiers to close out the year.

The question has been asked since Indiana’s hot start to league play: Are they for real? Did the Hoosiers really somehow turn things around defensively, or was that winning streak simply a by-product of their schedule?

The truth is that it was probably a combination of both. Calling them a fraud would be unjust — if you watched those games, there wasn’t much fluky about them; Indiana earned the Ws — but it does seem fair to say this is something of a regression to the mean.

They were going to slip up eventually.

And it will totally be forgotten if the Hoosiers can find a way to close the regular season with a winning record in their final seven games.