Somewhere, there exists an alternate timeline where Aaron Craft wasn’t sitting inside the Covelli Center on Friday night. It’s possible, almost likely, that the decorated point guard would have wound up in the hall of fame at whichever school he would’ve ended up playing for, but for a long time that destination was definitely not going to be Ohio State.
For a good while, it was going to be Tennessee. The Findlay native played AAU basketball with future Buckeyes Jared Sullinger, Jordan Sibert and JD Weatherspoon, but their future school hadn’t spent any time recruiting the player who would eventually become Ohio State’s all-time leader in steals and assists. For a good while, he was headed to Tennessee until coach Bruce Pearl impermissibly hosted him for a barbecue at his house and then lied to the NCAA about it.
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It led to Pearl’s ouster from the university and, eventually, Craft’s decision to sign with the Buckeyes in the class of 2010. But when Craft suddenly became an uncommitted recruit, Ohio State coach Thad Matta and his staff had some serious work to do.
“If I had my way as a prideful, bitter high schooler, I probably wouldn’t have come because when they first started showing interest I said, ‘Kick rocks. You didn’t want me before, why would you want me now?’ “Craft said Friday evening prior to his formal induction into the Ohio State athletics hall of fame. “That kind of thing. I was very skeptical.”
Obviously, it all worked out. In a four-year career at Ohio State, Craft was a four-time Big Ten all-defensive team pick, was twice named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year and won a program-record 119 games (tied with classmate Lenzelle Smith Jr .) from 2010-14. If not for Jeff Boals, then an assistant coach under Matta, Craft would not have become a Buckeye.
It was Boals, Craft said, who knew how to get through to that “prideful, bitter” high school player. He called his father, John.
“Bless coach Boals’ heart, he just knew my family, knew our personality so he went after my parents, which was the right thing to do,” Craft said. “My dad called me downstairs one day and said, ‘Hey, we should look into this.’ So that calmed me down and started something pretty cool.”
That conversation between father and son at the family’s kitchen table still sticks out to Craft nearly 15 years later. Before that happened, Craft said he was sitting in his bedroom with his brother when he got a text message from Sullinger asking if he’d consider coming to Ohio State. His immediate response: ‘Oh, this guy. The nerve (of him).” Matta also called, but Craft didn’t have his number so he just let it go to voicemail.
Meanwhile, Boals was laying out a pretty good plan to Craft’s father. Jon Diebler, who would be a junior during Craft’s freshman year, was a longtime friend. Plus, there were strong relationships with Sullinger, Siebert and Weatherspoon, and campus was less than a two-hour drive from home.
“I’m a logical guy, so the more you lay out facts like that the more it’s like, ‘All right, how can I just completely write it off?’ “Craft said. “Then once you come and you meet coach Matta and you see the vibe that the team has and the culture they’re building, they are a good program, right? Competing for Sweet 16s and beyond and Big Ten championships so once you start experiencing that you want to be a part of it.”
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“Oh yeah, I give him so much trash,” Craft said with a laugh. “He’s the first person I go to and say, ‘Do you remember when you didn’t want me at the beginning?’ And he goes into this spiel of, ‘We didn’t have a spot, we had this guy, then he transferred out’ and all this stuff. I’m like, ‘Yeah, but you still didn’t want me.’ That’s one that speaks just to who he is. He doesn’t take it personally.”
Craft remains close with Boals, now the coach at Ohio University, as well.
“He’s a guy I would call in the middle of the night if I needed anything because I know he would show up, without asking a question,” Craft said. “He’s held me accountable when we played. He wasn’t just a guy that did his job recruiting and then stepped off. He wanted me to continue to get better and improve and challenged me and those kinds of things.”
Matta and Boals weren’t the only Ohio State coaches unable to attend the induction. A little more than a stone’s throw away from the arena, the Buckeyes hosted their annual basketball family reunion dinner that welcomes back former players in addition to season-ticket holders. Director of basketball operations David Egelhoff called to apologize for not being able to attend, Craft said, but both Egelhoff and head coach Chris Holtmann attended a Friday lunch to support the inductee.
All’s well that ends well, and Craft said the situation became something he would joke about with Matta, who is now the coach at Butler. Friday’s induction ceremony marked the first day of the 2022-23 college basketball contact period for recruits, otherwise Matta would’ve been at the event, Craft said. Matta, his wife and daughters all reached out to him that morning, and Craft relayed a story of the coach and his wife joining him and Diebler for an impromptu late-night drive from Indianapolis to Chicago to see Carmen’s Crew play in The Basketball Tournament.
“I had no expectation they would show up or anything so for him to call me out of the blue and say, ‘Hey, we didn’t forget about you, we would totally be there but we have to do this other dinner,’ that was just really cool and why I love being part of this community because people care,” he said. “Coach Holtmann has no connection to me but he still cares, which is really cool.”