Walking down Bourbon Street, Aaron Craft stops to sign autographs for a few kids and is asked about his older brother.
Craft shrugs. While he's in the Big Easy trying to lead Ohio State to its first national title in 52 years, his big brother and role model is headed off to war for a second time.
Where Brandon is, where he's headed, when he might talk to him again, Craft doesn't know. Even when big bro called their parents' house, he wasn't aware of it.
“Really? I guess they're trying to keep it from me so I don't think about it all the time,” Craft said.
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It's hard not to.
After months of rehabilitating an injured knee, Brandon Craft left for his second deployment to Afghanistan the same day Craft and the Buckeyes clinched their Final Four berth.
Their mother, Wendy, was able to tell Brandon about the Final Four while he was on a stopover in Alaska after Ohio State's win over top-seeded Syracuse last Sunday, but the family hasn't heard anything from him since.
They've been through this once before; Brandon was dropped off at the Army recruiting center the day after the family took Aaron to Columbus. Still, this convergence of joy and apprehension is never easy, even in a place like New Orleans and an atmosphere like the Final Four.
“Sure, there's always anxiety from not knowing,” said their father, John Craft. “But there's also a pride that comes with it, a sense of knowing you did something right and don't have to worry that your sons are out doing something wrong. We're very proud of the two divergent paths our sons have taken.”
They started on the same track.
John was a successful high school football coach and pushed his oldest hard to excel at whatever he did.
Aaron picked up on Brandon's work ethic and had a stubborn, I'm-going-to-play-with-you streak, never backing down no matter how many times big brother and his friends scored on him and sent his shot into the bushes.
Sister Caitie fits into the same mold: she won a state high school championship and will play basketball for Ohio State starting next fall.
“Both boys and my daughter just work relentlessly,” John Craft said. “If they had to sit out and not do something for two days, they would go stir crazy.”
Aaron has an added don't-tell-me-what-I-can't-do tenacity to go with it.
Though three years younger than Brandon, he never let the age or size difference stop him when he was younger, constantly looking for ways to prove he measured up — even when he didn't physically.
Even as he got older, Aaron couldn't stop trying to show he could hang with his brother and his good friend, former Ohio State sharpshooter Jon Diebler.
While playing in tournament just after his freshman year in high school, Aaron heard Diebler was coming to stay the night with Brandon one last time before heading off to Ohio State. Despite playing a late game and having an early one the next day at a tournament several hours away, Aaron told his parents that he wanted to go home to see Diebler.
After arriving at the house in Findlay, Ohio, John went to bed fairly early because of the quick turnaround in the morning. He later was jarred awake by the sound of a bouncing ball.
“It was 2 a.m., and they were drenched in sweat, going at it as hard as they could go,” John Craft said. “I said Aaron, you've got to get up early tomorrow and play, and he said `I know, I'll be ready.’ It reminded me of when he was in fourth or fifth grade — he was not going to back down, and he was out there trying to prove himself.”
Aaron still has that gotta-go attitude.
A scrappy sophomore with a buzzcut and cheeks that turn rosy when he exerts himself, Aaron plays with an energy that seems ready to burst out of him. He's a steady player at the point with a beyond-his-years grasp of the game and is a decent shooter who provides some perimeter relief when teams sag on All-American forward Jared Sullinger.
Craft's real craft is his defense.
At an early age, Craft realized he was no match offensively for his brother or Diebler. Get enough shots swatted, even the most strong-willed of kids will get the hint.
What Craft could do, however, was harass those bigger kids with his defense.
Blessed with blurry-fast feet, Craft used his tenaciousness and quickness to his advantage, clinging to his brother and Diebler when they didn't have the ball, finding any way he could to get in front of them when they did have it.
He became, in the simplest terms, a pest.
“I couldn't score, but I could certainly frustrate them if I played hard, if I played defense,” said Craft, who played with Diebler at Ohio State last season as a freshman.
He's still doing it.
Although Ohio State is filled with talented players and has one of the best in the country in Sullinger, Craft's ability to stop opposing guards might be the biggest key to Ohio State's run to the Final Four.
This season, Craft blew past the school record for steals with 95, including six against Cincinnati in the East Regional semifinals, and was named the Big Ten's defensive player of the year – not bad for a 6-foot-2 guard in a rough-and-tumble league.
More than the steals, though, it's Craft's ability to disrupt what the other point guard is trying to do that makes him such a difference maker.
With those quick feet and good anticipation, he's an excellent off-the-ball defender who often jets past screens at the same time as his man. He does a good job of turning opposing point guards in directions he wants them to go instead of where the play is designed and is superb at sliding his feet to get ahead of the ballhandler when he does get beat.
Oh, yeah, there's that tenaciousness, pushing him to never give up on a play, to keep sticking his nose in no matter how many times he gets beat or knocked down.
“Aaron is a great example for our team,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “Every time he takes the floor, it starts with him.”
Ohio State's chances of beating Kansas on Saturday likely could hinge on whether Craft can contain Jayhawks point guard Tyshawn Taylor.
When it's over, regardless of the outcome, Craft's attention quickly will turn to his brother, wherever he might be.
“I like to think I'm fighting for something pretty big, but when it comes down to it, he's fighting for something even bigger,” Craft said. “I'm very proud of him for everything he has accomplished.”
Somewhere out there, his brother probably feels the same way.