An Aaron Craft Appreciation: All-American Hustle, Mysticism, and Rubik’s Cubes

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As Aaron Craft prepares to play his final regular-season collegiate game on Sunday afternoon, here are 10 thoughts on the Ohio State point guard’s career, makeup, and unquestionably unique character.

1. You probably don’t know Aaron Craft personally, but you definitely know his type. At least, you did in sixth grade. If you doubt this, try to remember your youth basketball coach’s absolute favorite player. (This shouldn’t be hard; nobody plays favorites quite like youth basketball coaches.) The favorite probably played point guard, and he almost certainly drew rave reviews for his “scrappy” defense, All-American hustle, and team-first mentality. On the way home from games, your parents were palpably disappointed in your inability to play like him. He sweated a lot, which somehow served as indisputable evidence of the generally agreed-upon fact that he wanted it more than everybody else, including you. (In this context, “wanting it” constitutes not merely the will to win, but the will to win in a Hoosiers-friendly manner.) He made practice a living hell — what should have been 90 minutes of after-school socializing became a series of busted three-man weaves and vital water breaks, all because of this one eager beaver. And yeah, he was good … but maddeningly so, because he wasn’t physically imposing or an Iversonian ball handler or even that great of a shooter. He just filled up the stat sheet and got way more playing time than you, and although you’d never admit it, he deserved every minute of it.

Usually this guy becomes a gym teacher, content to torture flabby middle schoolers for the rest of his life. Sometimes, though, he becomes the starting point guard for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

2. It’s cliché to use flame verbiage when introducing an athlete’s highlight reel. For instance, “Watch Player X [torch/burn/light up] some fools!” (paraphrasing here) is a YouTube caption I’ve seen roughly 8,675,309 times. Nevertheless, it’s still often an exceedingly accurate way to describe said reel’s content. Not in Craft’s case, though. Craft’s preferred method of hardwood homicide isn’t arson; it’s strangulation. As such, the proper way to introduce a Craft mixtape is simply to say: Here’s a mash-up of Aaron Craft inducing a bunch of poor souls into unwinnable wars of attrition; marvel at his ability to oppress and exhaust an opponent until all that’s left is a once-athletic cadaver.

3. Here’s another Craft highlight reel, this time from his sophomore year of high school. (There’s no sound in this one, so for maximum enjoyment I strongly recommend playing this video in the background.)

Considering Craft was basically the Michael Vick of the Ohio prep football scene for three whole years, he probably doesn’t get enough credit for being what he is: a freakishly gifted athlete. But you can’t really blame most American sports fans for overlooking the gridiron exploits of Liberty-Benton High School, a tiny D-3 program near Toledo whose most notable alum is Craft himself. And regardless, the quarterback/safety gave up football after his junior season to focus exclusively on hoops, evoking memories of another Ohio high school sports legend in the process. This was MAJOR news in Craft’s hometown of Findlay.

4. Let’s backtrack for a moment, lest we omit what’s in all likelihood the only “scandal” with which Craft will ever be associated. As a junior, Craft had made a verbal commitment to Tennessee, which of course meant backyard barbecues at Bruce Pearl’s house, the best place on the planet for a mouthwatering rack of baby back ribs (you heard it here first). Problem was, Craft attended one of Pearl’s cookouts in violation of NCAA rules, and worse, took a photo with Pearl documenting their A1-flavored shenanigans. Pearl knew that Craft, as an unofficial visitor to Tennessee, wasn’t permitted to meet with him off-campus, which is why he “encouraged those who were [at the cookout] not to disclose it to others … then lied about the incident and called Craft’s father to ask him to do so as well.” Pearl got fired less than a year after the NCAA caught wind of things, but Craft emerged from the incident unscathed. Citing a desire to be closer to home, Craft flipped to Ohio State as senior.

5. According to Wikipedia, Craft boasted a career 73.7 completion percentage, was a member of “the only team to win the AAU Nationals at three different age levels,” and was his class valedictorian. But his most impressive pre-OSU accomplishment has to be memorizing the first 60 digits of pi. Because I don’t know about you, but where I come from, that’s NOT the sort of thing a superstar high school athlete would ever (1) have the inclination to do, or (2) take an immense amount of pride in. Yet Craft is guilty on both counts.

You might think the type of person who’d memorize the first 60 digits of pi would also be an elite Rubik’s Cube solver. You wouldn’t be wrong.

Nor would you be wrong in assuming that Craft carries a stellar GPA (3.93) and is one of only four three-time Academic All-Americans in Big Ten history. So when he says he plans to go to medical school next year, it doesn’t come off as mere lip service to the NCAA’s academic integrity subcommittee. This dude is relentlessly and unabashedly cerebral, and it obviously pays off on the basketball court.

6. Craft’s first two seasons in Columbus followed a fairly steady upward trajectory. As a freshman, he carved out a role as the 34-3 Buckeyes’ sixth man, and quickly became known for his ruthless on-ball defense. As a sophomore, he started at point guard, shot 50 percent from the field, and led OSU to the Final Four. At the risk of sounding painfully obvious, I’ll submit that most folks assumed this upward trajectory was largely due to Craft’s improvement as a basketball player. This may have been true to an extent, but in retrospect, it looks like his early ascent was merely the byproduct of increased playing time and of having some capable scorers around him to feed. Nonetheless, Buckeye Nation seemed to be in unanimous agreement that Craft was seriously improving, which naturally heightened expectations for the latter half of his career. When word leaked that he had been playing with a freaking “bone chip floating in his left ankle” since high school, and that he finally had the good sense to see a doctor for it in June 2012, fans doubled down on this sentiment. Now we’ll get the FULL Aaron Craft experience, they practically sang.

7. All of which is to say that, through no fault of his own, Craft was set up to become an enigma as an upperclassman. His offensive limitations were manifest from the moment he picked up a basketball; it’s not like he was brought in to be the next Mike Conley. There’s a reason Thad Matta recruited Shannon Scott, a supposed rim-attacker, the year after Craft came to town; hindsight being 20/20, Matta should’ve gone after hometown product Trey Burke instead. Too bad foresight’s never 20/20.

Combine the utterly glaring lack of Burke with the departures of Jared Sullinger and William Buford, and you start to understand the precarious spot the Buckeyes were in during the 2012-13 season. Noted black hole Deshaun Thomas was the squad’s only legitimate scoring threat; just reread the previous clause if you want to understand why the Buckeyes lost to a 9-seed in the Elite Eight. In many ways, that roster was on some real 2007 Cavs shit, except of course that Thomas wasn’t quite LeBron’s equal when it came to, like, any aspect of basketball. Someone had to step up and assume some offensive responsibilities, and God bless Craft for trying. Watching Craft attempt to transform into an offensive-minded point guard was like seeing an infant operate a stick shift blindfolded. Sure, it may have been an awkward and ill-advised and relatively unsuccessful endeavor, but who in their right mind cares about that stuff when the entertainment value’s through the roof? Case in point: Ohio State’s second-round matchup with Iowa State, which featured something of a second-half quasi meltdown from Craft. Once he’d missed an easy lay-in and two consecutive one-and-one opportunities, just about everyone was ready to label him a goat. Then this happened:

Never let anyone tell you that the Craft-jacking-up-his-field-goal-attempts experiment was without bright spots.

8. Though I like to think of myself as a perfectly fair arbiter of point guard play, it’s possible (albeit unlikely) I’m downplaying Craft’s contributions on the offensive side of the court. With that in mind, I urge you to spend 1:38 watching the following video.

Say this much for Craft: When the game’s on the line, Ohio State fans feel comfortable knowing the ball is in his hands. Is that because there’s really no other option, on account of Matta’s inexplicable refusal to recruit anyone with a halfway-decent jump shot? Well, partly. But Craft’s earned that trust, too, often by way of well-executed shot clock slow-bleeds like what you see above. And I realize how archaic this statement sounds in 2014, but it’s exactly this sort of intangible excellence that makes it impossible to assess Craft’s performance off a box score alone. Like Tim Tebow, Craft compels open-minded viewers to at least consider mysticism and/or intrinsic eliteness as forces that influence the outcome of sporting events, and there’s something to be said for that.

9. Before we finish, let the record show that Craft is not a Martian, secretly elderly, or even a time traveler from the 1950s. Of course, the simple fact that this clarification needs to be made is a testament to the Tebow-ish persona Craft has built and maintained since entering the public eye three and a half years ago. I mean, we’re talking about a college student who had to confirm to the local press that he had “faults.” FAULTS. These people literally thought he was the reincarnation of John the Baptist or something.

And he most definitely does have faults! For example, he “eats ice cream like every night” and, like you, is addicted to Flappy Bird. (Of course, he’s also a much, much better Flappy Bird player than you’ll ever be. But try not to dwell on that.) And that’s where the list seemingly ends, unless you want to deconstruct his jumper.

Although: Craft’s NOT ON TWITTER, which is pretty much indefensible for anyone under the age of 30. While this may seem suspect — does he have something to hide? Why isn’t he leveraging his brand? — his roommates, bless their hearts, have thankfully taken up the task of documenting Craft’s interior life over at @CRAFTroomies. Through it, we’ve learned about Craft’s dreadful Super Bowl prediction, how he spends his snow days (SPOILER ALERT: not like you did), and his proclivity for Mexican cuisine. Oh yeah, and his September engagement.

I can assure you that this was the single most talked-about thing in Columbus for a good three weeks. Although Craft had been dating his now-fiancée since high school, the majority of Ohio State’s female population was positively devastated by this tweet. And rightly so. Who wouldn’t want to go to the Columbus Zoo and Zac Brown Band concerts with Aaron Craft? There are perfect dates, and then there are Aaron Craft dates.

10. Speaking of dates, Craft has an important one scheduled for Sunday. Ohio State’s matchup with Michigan State doubles as Senior Day in Columbus, which means pregame photo ops with hysterical parents. Craft will undoubtedly get a hearty send-off from the crowd, perhaps the heartiest the Schottenstein Center has seen since Mark Titus’s emotional farewell. In fact, it’ll be so hearty that an outsider with no knowledge of the 2013-14 Ohio State Buckeyes might be shocked to learn that Craft and his teammates have underwhelmed this season, to put it very mildly. And while Craft deserves a fair share of the blame for the Buckeyes’ recent struggles — his turnover rate has been pretty disturbing lately, and his assist numbers aren’t ideal — it’s important to remember that all he’s really guilty of, as Ramzy Nasrallah noted this week on Eleven Warriors, is being “unbelievably consistent.”

In other words, throughout his entire career, Craft has done everything anyone could have reasonably asked him to do to help the Buckeyes achieve success. That the Buckeyes haven’t been particularly successful this year is more a product of Craft’s surroundings than of him squandering some untapped reservoir of talent. And besides, barring an astounding postseason run, Craft’s legacy is set. Guys like him — bona fide stars who stay in school for four years — matter because they show that college basketball can still exist as something other than a glorified feeder system for the NBA. And in the long run, that’s way more significant than developing a hitch-free jumper.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Aaron Craft, Ohio State Buckeyes, Point Guards, Big Ten, Aaron Craft Knows The First 60 Digits Of Pi, What Can You Do?, Matt Borcas

Matt Borcas is a contributing writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mattborcas