February 25, 2012

Student of the game

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Thad Matta has coached in a national championship game, tutored multiple national players of the year and won countless conference championships in an 11-year head coaching career that has led him from Butler to Xavier to Ohio State. Still, the news he received Thursday afternoon hit him more than any previous big win or player honor.

Matta had been informed that sophomore point guard Aaron Craft became the Buckeyes' first men's basketball player in 44 years to be named a first team Academic All-American.

"I've been very fortunate coaching a couple national Players of the Year and first-team All-Americans," Matta said on Friday, "and when (sports information director) Dan (Wallenberg) told me he had won that honor, I don't know if I've ever been that happy, because you see the work that he puts in to the academic side of it and it translates onto the court."

Craft, a native of Findlay, came to Ohio State as a 4.0 high school student and National Honor Society member from Liberty-Benton. Majoring in exercise science (pre-med), he has maintained a grade-point average that puts him near the top percentile of students at OSU - 3.89 - though Craft did receive the first "B" of his life during his freshman year of coursework.

Bill Hosket, in 1968, was the last Buckeye honored as a first teamer. Ohio State hopes there is more symmetry tied to the two, as OSU defeated Kentucky in the 1968 NCAA Tournament en route to the Final Four.

"I feel very blessed to have been able to be that person and have that award," Craft said. "Academically, I enjoy school. I knew it was going to be a challenge and wouldn't be like high school, and it's worked out well so far."

But Craft didn't want to focus on his off-court achievements. He wanted to stay focused on the team's goals, which include a Big Ten championship and trip to New Orleans for the Final Four. Craft said he'd talk about the other stuff in "a month and a half."

During their two years together, senior William Buford quickly caught on to Craft's smarts.

"It's crazy," he said. "He gets 100s on his exams. I've never known anybody like that."

Craft is routinely chided by his teammates because of his academic prowess. He has long been known for his ability to solve a Rubic's Cube in less than two minutes. A video of this feat, compared with how long it took OSU's other 12 players, was recently shown on the videoboard at Value City Arena. Laughter from 18,000 viewers ensued.

What makes Craft so special, though, is that his success isn't limited to the classroom. He has taken his off-court knowledge and transferred it to basketball arenas throughout the Midwest. In 36 career Big Ten games, Craft has already tormented the 11 opposing coaches, inducing Nebraska's Doc Sadler, with his heady defense and attentive offense.

In the last two weeks alone, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo referred to Craft as the "best on-ball defender" he's ever seen, while Illinois head coach Bruce Weber lauded his floor-general leadership on offense.

And it isn't coachspeek praise.

Craft won three Big Ten honors as a freshman - All-Defense, All-Freshman and Sixth Man of the Year - due in part to his lockdown defense and propensity to find Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Jared Sullinger for easy baskets. As a true freshman, the one-time Tennessee commit became a focal point for the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes. The highlight being a school-record 15 assists in an evisceration of George Mason in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

He's carried that over to his second year at Ohio State and first year as a starter.

Craft is a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given annually to the nation's best point guard. Hes averaged 8.3 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.3 steals in 28 games. His assist and steal numbers are tops on the team and second in the conference.

The unquestioned team leader, Craft has been an extension of Matta on the floor. He regularly huddles the team together, shouting instructions and pointing out flaws in the opposing team.

"If there's a lesson that I've learned from him," Matta said, "it's getting guys to understand that from seven o'clock in the morning to whenever you go to bed, if you do the best you can in everything that comes your way, you're going to be successful."


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