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OSU’S Craft steals the show

03/09/2014, 1:55am EST
By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Liberty-Benton graduate wrapping up historic career with Buckeyes


Ohio State coach Thad Matta said today will be a difficult day. Aaron Craft has been part of 116 career wins as a Buckeye.

COLUMBUS — Maybe there will come along another basketball player like Ohio State’s Aaron Craft.

Maybe there will be a bigger phenomenon: another player who inspires a 7-year-old from Orlando, Fla., to redeem his Make-a-Wish fantasy on meeting him, a middle-school volleyball team to sprint three blocks after spotting him from their bus, and a Twitter account from his roommates that has more than 27,000 followers.

Maybe there will be someone more dedicated: another former valedictorian and pre-med student with a 3.93 GPA who attends weekly Bible study meetings, goes on a mission trip to Haiti, and has, according to one roommate, "never even entertained the idea" of crashing a campus bar.

Maybe there will be a more intense winner: another starter on four straight NCAA tournament-bound teams who sometimes sleeps at the team’s practice facility and becomes the Big Ten’s all-time steals leader. Another player who becomes so popular and earns such praise — Dan Dakich, anyone? — that it inflames a need nationally to pick him apart.

Maybe.

On the chance there is not, savor this afternoon when the Buckeyes host Michigan State.

OSU’s final home game will celebrate its departing pillar as he fights to jump-start one final March run.

Craft, a Liberty-Benton graduate, calls this the most trying year of his basketball life. National contenders in each of his first three seasons, the Buckeyes (22-8, 9-8 Big Ten) are coming off back-to-back losses to unranked Penn State and Indiana and have dropped from the polls themselves.

"It’s been tough," Craft said in an interview last week. "The most challenging part has been trying to find a way to bounce back because we've never been through this before. But the best part is we've got one last regular-season game and after that it's a clean slate for everybody. It doesn't matter what we've done to this point. All that matters is moving forward."

If the Findlay native has proven anything, it would be unwise to cast him off.

In a college basketball world of big money and one-and-done flash, Craft represents the rarest species — the star who allows fans to suspend reality, the big name from the small town they can call a student-athlete without a dash of irony.

"[Today] will be very difficult," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.

A humble star

So what is Craft’s legacy?

For one, his dry wit. He cracked that a statue honoring his legacy — the one Matta suggested be built — should read, "Why did they waste their money?"

Craft has been part of 116 wins and is the Buckeyes’ all-time leader in steals (324) and assists (666), but insists others are more deserving to be considered among the program’s best players of his generation: past stars like Scoonie Penn, Terrance Dials, Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jr., Evan Turner, and Jared Sullinger.

“I just don’t feel comfortable putting myself in close to the same categories of guys that came before,” Craft said. “I’m just very honored and humbled to continue on what they’ve established here."

He is also not eager to join the polarizing debate of his NBA future.

Yes, his offensive game is limited. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Craft is best cast on teams where his offense is a bonus, not a necessity. This year, with OSU lacking a dominant scorer, his struggle to put pressure on defenses from outside is amplified. He is shooting 34.1 percent from beyond the arc (15 of 46).

Yet would a player Dakich time and again tells ESPN viewers he would pick over any other in the nation really not have a place in the NBA? What about a player Michigan coach John Beilein called as good of a defender "as I’ve ever seen?" Or a player whose defensive highlights Kansas coach Bill Self showed his young team in January to make sure it knew what may have passed for effort in high school wasn’t effort at all?

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said Craft reminds him of former Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow.

"People talk about all the things he's not good at," Pitino said. "Why? I don’t know. He's great at a lot of things. Everybody would want him on your team."

Craft’s father, John, has already received overtures from several NBA agents.

"Some of them are like car salesmen and they're going to tell you what you want to hear," John said. "Some of them are very honest. The ones we appreciate are the honest ones. They're very up front. They see him as a backup. A lot of teams like to carry a third point guard, and if he has a good showing at workouts, they think he's got a pretty good shot."

Joe Kotoch, a Cleveland-based former NBA agent who analyzes the draft for ProBasketballDraft.com, projects Craft as a late-second round pick. Last summer, in a scrimmage at Team USA’s basketball camp, he watched Craft stifle All-Star Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving.

"He was like his shadow," he said. "It was suffocating."

Kotoch said there are two schools of thinking in the NBA: one based on athletic potential "that gets people in a tizzy," the other modeled after baseball’s Moneyball movement.

"Are there going to be teams that say Aaron Craft is not our type of point guard? Absolutely," Kotoch said. "But with some teams’ GMs, it’s more about the analytics. Can the player do something that's underrated? When you're looking at Craft, you’re not getting a guy who's going to come in and wow you athletically. But you're going to get a guy who does something underrated and that's play extremely intense, aggressive on-the-ball defense.

"What backup point guard or third-string point guard wouldn't be asked to do something like that? ... When you look at how important intangibles are to rounding out a roster, there's a place in the NBA for Aaron Craft."

In other words, medical school may have to wait.

"I know I love playing basketball, so hopefully I can do that as long as possible," Craft said. "If not, I’m trying to do my best to have a couple opportunities outside of athletics if it comes to it."

The college experience

That’s where Craft is different.

If he were just an average college senior looking for a 9-to-5 job, he would be unusually committed — a proud egghead who has aced every class since a dreaded B-plus in chemistry his freshman year. Craft’s roommates are athletes from nonrevenue sports he met through Athletes in Action, a Christian sports ministry.

Teammates and coaches say they have never seen a player so tightly bind their tentacles around what OSU athletic director Gene Smith called "100 percent of the college experience."

"He’s special," Smith said.

Which leads to the tongue-in-cheek question at the heart of the Craft phenomenon: Is he perfect?

His buddies play off the perception with their popular Twitter account, @CRAFTroomies. With Craft not on the social networking site, these liaisons chronicle everything from the roommates’ Taco Tuesdays to the pen-wielding eccentrics who have followed him to his apartment after practice — "#HeIsNotThatCool" — to their "#PerfectRoomieProblems."

One photo shows Craft — the basketball program’s first three-time Academic All-American — with his roommates practicing an upcoming class presentation.

"His topic?" writes @CRAFTroomies. "How to be a teachers pet."

If you’re waiting for the roomies to dish some dirt, it may be a while. Cosmopolitan’s former "Hottest Guy" of March Madness is engaged to his high school girlfriend and would just as soon spend a Saturday night beating his roommates in the word-guessing game "Catch Phrase."

Basking in his celebrity at a campus bar?

"He's never even entertained the idea," said Logan Jones, a Buckeyes golfer and one of Craft’s roommates. "Mostly because of his faith that plays a huge role in his life. It’s not necessarily like there's a void in his life where he's missing out on so much fun by not going to the bars. It's that he doesn't see value in it, and that's part of the reason why he's successful. That’s kind of the cool thing about the roommates. We hang out a lot, we hang out on weekends, and we all have the same kind of morals. We have a lot of clean fun."

Turns out, Craft has only one known vice.

"You can scour high and low in his apartment and have him under camera 24-7 and you won't find much," Jones said. "But I will say this. He does love his ice cream, Every night, he's eating some sort of dessert. I'm not sure he's going to quit eating ice cream once he stops playing sports, so his bad habits might catch up with him."

Confronted with the allegation, Craft said, "I do like to eat ice cream a lot. That usually happens nightly."

This makes him perfect to a 7-year-old boy from Orlando named A.J. Weyant, who was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 2. With his parents both Ohio natives and Buckeyes fans, Craft became the favorite player on his favorite team — and thus the person he most wanted to meet through the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

"He really got to like him because he steals the ball a lot and just works so hard," said his father, Brent, who played basketball at Bettsville, about 40 miles southeast of Toledo.

His cancer now in remission, A.J. made the trip to Columbus for a game last month. He played Craft in ping pong and the arcade game "Big Buck Hunter" in the Buckeyes’ locker room, then joined the team on the court during shootaround.

"A.J. is still on cloud nine about the visit," Brent said. "And he probably will be for some time."

Craft was humbled by the visit, calling such meetings the one true benefit of his outsized stature. He tries to make as many hospital visits and appearances as his schedule allows.

"Anything to put a smile on someone's face for a picture or signing something," he said, "that's something that makes it well worth going through any other stuff."

The biggest man on campus who never acts like it would make a great story. As he completes one of the most accomplished careers in OSU history, just don’t expect Craft to author it.

"I just try to do my best to enjoy the time I’ve had to be here," he said. "Ever since I was little, the idea was just try to find a way to be a small part of the team, and it’s continued here. It’s worked out pretty well."

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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