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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio State head coach Thad Matta admitted he wasn't quite sure what he'd get out of point guard Aaron Craft when the freshman arrived on campus.
Craft's teammates didn't share the same apprehensions.
"You know in June, I didn't know if Aaron would be ready," Matta admitted Friday. "But our veteran players told me, 'He's going to be hard to keep off the court,' and he has been."
Bringing in a defensive reputation from summer open gym games to the team's training camp, Matta quickly realized his trepidation toward the abilities of the freshman were for naught.
Craft doesn't look like much on the surface. A small, 6-foot-2, 195-pound freshman doesn't look like he belongs when trotting on the floor next to teammates David Lighty or even fellow freshman Jared Sullinger, a 6-foot-9 power forward that was arguably the most coveted recruit in the nation last year.
But on the floor, Craft sports perhaps the most unique basketball IQ and court awareness of any player his age, not to mention he is deceivingly fast.
"As we started practice (in October), I was thinking, 'Boy, Craft has a chance to be really good,'" Matta said. "It was his defense and his understanding of what we were trying to do offensively. He's such a competitive kid, such a cerebral kid."
But even with the positive signs from the team's first practices of the season, it's hard to imagine Matta had any idea Craft would develop into the role he has. That's particulalry the case because Matta had to find a way to replace Evan Turner, who played point for Ohio State last year before winning the Naismith Award and leaving early to the NBA.
Matta was certain he'd need to turn to one of his veteran guards to take over the vacant point guard position, much like he did with Turner the year before. William Buford, a junior, and Lighty were among the popular choices for the coach.
But Craft gave Matta something the other players didn't: a prototypical point guard that focuses on being a facilitator of the offense. A pure passer that has already shown the ability to break a press and play superior defense, Craft is asserting himself as one of the key players on this team.
"As the season's worn on, I think you've seen Aaron grow," said Matta. "Aaron was special tonight. He was effective on both sides of the ball today and did not play like freshman despite the big game."
Craft's game has been evolving alongside the success of the Buckeyes, who should pick up the No. 1 spot in the polls Monday morning after winning its first 18 games of the season, including the first five in Big Ten play.
As Matta stated, Craft's aggressiveness and confidence with the basketball has increased by game, culminating with the best game of his Ohio State career in the Buckeyes' most recent win over Penn State Saturday.
Matched up with perhaps the biggest scoring threat in the conference in Talor Battle, Craft showed up on both ends of the court to lead the Buckeyes to yet another close win on their home floor.
Craft had his most prolific night scoring - shooting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc en route to a career-high 19 points - and he added seven assists and only one turnover.
On the defensive end, Craft held Battle - the Big Ten's leading scorer - to 5-of-17 night (1-of-10 from beyond the arc) while preventing Battle from converting on Penn State's final possession when the Lions were looking to force overtime.
Craft admitted he wasn't sure he'd have this big of a role on a team regarded by many as the best in college basketball. He doesn't think about the magnitude of the situation, either. He just thinks about what it took for him to get in this position, a plan he will continue to carry out through the remainder of his freshman season.
"I think it all started in the summer," Craft said of his progression. "Just coming in, trying to work hard and do what I was told to do. That's what it boiled down to. I didn't have to say much. I just sat back and listened."
Sporting unmatched intelligence - which is evident in his ACT score of 28 - it is the maturity on the floor that is most attractive to Matta. It goes all the way back to the third game of the season where Craft played only 16 minutes where Craft's maturity stood out to Matta.
"I said to him after (that game), 'Sorry I didn't get you in more,'" Matta recalled, "And he said, 'Hey, Coach Hey, as long we won, I'm good to go.' And I kind of went, 'Wow.'"
Given Craft's emergence as a key player on this team, Matta doesn't have to think twice before sending the freshman to the scorers table.
Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at Ari@BuckeyeGrove.com.
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