INDIANAPOLIS — Before Greg Paulus joined the Ohio State basketball staff, Aaron Craft did not much care for the coach.
Maybe it was because Paulus played at Duke. Or the way he slapped the floor on defense, the way his exuberance and hustle made him resemble, as one online commentator noted, "the guy who wears four armbands" and "plays just a little too hard during open gym." Paulus was the most hated player on the nation’s most hated team.
"I didn’t know him," said Craft, the Buckeyes’ senior point guard. "I just chose not to like him very much."
It was only once the Findlay native met Paulus that he came to the realization: They were the same person.
Two of college basketball’s most polarizing — and admired — recent players, Craft and Paulus have developed a deep bond over the last three seasons at Ohio State.
No one knows what it’s like to be Craft better than the Buckeyes’ third-year staffer and first-year assistant. The pair have the same résumé bullet points — high school quarterback, college point guard, Academic All-American, member of ESPN’s latest "Most Hated College Basketball Players of the Last 30 Years" bracket — while they are now working together to help lead the Buckeyes on another March run.
No. 24 OSU (23-8) tips off postseason play at this weekend’s Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis, with its first-round game today against last-place Purdue.
"That relationship I have with Aaron, it's something that is very unique," Paulus said in an interview this week. "And moving forward, I think we'll always have that bond."
Craft shrugged when Matta first introduced him to Paulus. It was 2011, and the Buckeyes were about to hire the most recognizable 24-year-old assistant in the country. Paulus had spent three years as a starter at Duke — where he succeeded J.J. Redick as the Blue Devils’ magnet for vitriol from rival student sections — played quarterback at Syracuse for one season as a graduate student, and spent the previous year as an assistant at Navy.
"I said, ‘Hey Aaron, this is Greg Paulus,’" Matta recalled, "and he said, ‘I know who he is. I’ve watched him for a long time.’"
Yet if Craft admittedly "wasn’t the fondest of Gregory when he played," they instantly grew close. They shared a purpose beyond basketball — including their faith — and a belief in the in-your-face way the game should be played.
"It's been great because Greg’s a guy who's been through battles," Craft said. "We share a lot in common, and being able to hear his side of the things, it's helped a lot for me growing up."
This year, Craft is grateful to still have his buddy and mentor around. The 27-year-old Paulus is widely viewed as a potential coaching star, and with Ohio State not having an assistant opening last spring, he had opportunities beyond a third season as the Buckeyes’ video coordinator.
University of Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk made Paulus a priority candidate to fill one of his program’s two staff vacancies. .
"Tod talked to me about Greg, and Greg and I talked about it," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "Greg's still young, and he said, ‘What do you think is the best situation for me?’ And I said, ‘Staying here, because I think there’s going to be an opportunity to move up.’"
Paulus stayed and was soon rewarded. When Chris Jent left OSU in June for a coaching position with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, Paulus became the youngest assistant in the Big Ten.
He has watched his understudy become a more heralded version of his pass-first, defensive-minded self, with Craft this season leading the Big Ten in assists (4.6 per game during conference play) and capturing a second league defensive player of the year award.
The only big difference between the two? Craft, a former all-state quarterback at Liberty-Benton, gives Paulus the major edge under center. While Paulus was also a star football recruit who had scholarship offers from Notre Dame and Miami among others and started during his one season at Syracuse, Craft plans to stick with hoops — with medical school as the fallback plan.
"Aaron's going to do some great things when he leaves Ohio State," Paulus said.
Craft is just as complimentary of the Blue Devil-turned-Buckeye. Begrudgingly, he has learned not to judge a Duke man by the horns of his mascot.
Though Craft was a higher seed on ESPN’s playful "Most Hated" bracket last March — a No. 7 with a first-round showdown against second-seeded former Florida star Joakim Noah while Paulus was a No. 8 faced with an even more daunting opener against fellow Duke alum Christian Laettner — he now wonders why Paulus was on the list at all.
"Greg’s one of the nicest guys I know now," he said.
— David Briggs