Craft Building A Reputation

When Thad Matta signed his 2010 recruiting class, Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas garnered top billing as the headliners in the group. As the season has gone, however, freshman Aaron Craft has proven himself to be an indispensable part of the squad.

When it comes to Aaron Craft, Thad Matta likes to lapse into exaggerated stories. Like the one about his first chance to square off against former Ohio State star Michael Conley Jr. during summer open gym sessions.

"Aaron started guarding him when he pulled into the parking lot because he wanted the challenge," the head coach said.

Or the one about how when the Buckeyes were named the nation's No. 1 team, Craft reacted like a character in the 2004 hit movie "Anchorman" by uttering such antiquated phrases as "neat-o" or "way to go" to his teammates. That had the freshman trying to set the record straight.

"I like the movie a lot, just the way he described me – I don't think it was as accurate as he portrayed," he said with a laugh.

But when it comes to cold, hard facts, there is little need for embellishment. The black and white figures paint the colorful picture of a de facto starter on the nation's top-ranked team who is making an early impact beyond his years.

A four-star prospect from Findlay (Ohio) Liberty-Benton, Craft was pegged as a defensive stalwart and a player who could facilitate the OSU offense without being tasked with doing much of the scoring. Instead, he has emerged as one of the Big Ten's most impressive guards on a team with realistic Final Four aspirations.

Although he has only started one game in place of junior guard William Buford, who was out with a balky back, Craft leads the team and is third in the Big Ten with an average of 4.89 assists per game as of Jan. 19. After grabbing seven steals in Wednesday's victory against Iowa, Craft leads the conference with an average of 1.84 thefts per contest.

In a Jan. 15 home victory against Penn State, Craft proved that he can score too. His 19 points on 4-of-6 shooting from three-point range – all career highs – helped fend off the upset challenge from the Nittany Lions. As PSU head coach Ed DeChellis said after the game, Craft was the one player they wanted to make beat them with his jumper.

"Craft stepped up and made some big shots," he said. "You've got to pick your poison. I knew (Jon) Diebler could make shots and Buford could make shots and (David) Lighty could make shots but we thought, let's dig off of (Craft) and let him make some shots and he did."

It was not the first time Craft has made an opponent pay for underestimating him. Now listed at 6-2, 195 pounds, Craft has made a living out of doing so. At least, that is how classmate Jared Sullinger tells it.

Since ninth grade, the two have been AAU teammates while playing for All-Ohio Red. Sullinger said teams have always pinpointed Craft as the weak link on the floor only to be sorely mistaken.

"He's always been the underdog and he's always embraced it," Sullinger said. "Being with him for the past four years and watching how everybody tries to attack him just because of the way he looks and the way he carries himself, it's pretty funny because as a team we know this isn't the person you want to attack at all. He's a lock-down defender."

He was also nearly not a Buckeye. Prior to his junior year, Craft issued a verbal commitment to Tennessee. OSU had not offered him a scholarship, but Matta said the staff was aware of the guard because it had been recruiting Sullinger.

Sullinger kept telling the Buckeye coaching staff to pay more attention to Craft. According to the forward, Matta told him they needed to land some new recruits but not necessarily of the high-profile variety.

Craft fit the bill, and when he opted to reconsider his recruitment, OSU stepped into the picture and issued a scholarship. Now he has proven to be the answer to the question of who would man the point guard position vacated by Evan Turner, last year's national player of the year.

Matta said his coaches were talking as recently as Sunday about how different of a team the would be if things had turned out differently.

"If we didn't have Aaron Craft, what a different basketball team we would be," the coach said. "We'd probably be playing a completely different way. His impact has been big for us."

And although Craft is not a starter, Sullinger said he serves a role of primary importance on the team.

"He's our key to our engine," the forward said. "I know there are times we start out the first four minutes kind of sluggish as a starting five and then Coach Matta will throw him in and our team gets rolling. With a player like Aaron Craft, it was the best pickup we got."

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