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Sullinger, Craft find friendship after rivalry

Cody Cousino / Asst. multimedia editor

At a Jan. 18 press conference, Ohio State freshman point guard Aaron Craft was asked if he ever had a “Welcome to Ohio State” moment during summer scrimmages with former OSU players. His teammate, freshman forward Jared Sullinger, took the liberty of answering the question for him.

“(Former OSU guard) Scoonie Penn calls him ‘Cheese,’ ’cause his last name is Craft,” Sullinger said. “So that was a ‘Welcome to Ohio State’ moment right there. He won’t tell you all, but I will.”

As reporters roared with laughter, Craft took the moment to thank Sullinger sarcastically for sharing the formerly private information with the media.

“And now that is outside the team.” Craft said. “Thank you, Jared.”

Whether they’re joking around in a press conference or connecting on the court, it’s easy to see Craft and Sullinger have had chemistry — both on and off the court — since the moment they met. Sullinger, however, said his and Craft’s friendship was born out of a rivalry that dates to middle school AAU basketball.

“What’s funny is, me and Craft was enemies in the eighth grade,” Sullinger said. “I didn’t like Craft ’cause he played for All-Ohio Red and I played for Columbus Jaguars, and they constantly beat our butt until nationals.”

The following season, Sullinger left the Jaguars to join Craft’s All-Ohio Red team. Craft said he vividly remembers the moment he found out he would be teaming up with his former rival.

“The first AAU practice we had in ninth grade, Jared wasn’t with us at the time, and after practice, our coach told us that he was going to play with us, and I’m not going to lie, I got pretty excited,” Craft said. “I knew who he was; I knew what he could do; and once I finally met him, we definitely kind of just formed a bond.”

Alongside OSU freshmen Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon, who was ruled academically ineligible for Winter Quarter, Craft and Sullinger continued to play for All-Ohio Red in AAU basketball tournaments during the springs and summers throughout their high-school careers. Sullinger said Craft’s abilities always impressed him, even if opposing teams underestimated Craft.

“He played on a team full of black guys. You know how there’s that one guy, they classify him as a shooter? So every time Aaron got into the game they were like, ‘Watch the shooter; watch the shooter.’ And the next thing you know, he blows by you,” Sullinger said. “He’s always been the underdog, and he’s always embraced it, and so being with him for the past four years and just watching how everybody attacks him just because of the way he looks, the way he carries himself, it’s pretty funny.”

Opposing teams weren’t underestimating Sullinger. After earning a reputation as one of the top players in his class, Sullinger accepted a scholarship offer from OSU following his freshman season of high school. OSU coach Thad Matta enlisted Sullinger to help to fill out the rest of the 2010 recruiting class.

“When I committed to Ohio State, coach Matta said we need to add more people to the class. Not more so, you know, top-ranked basketball players, but solid basketball players,” Sullinger said. “I kept telling him about Aaron. I was like, ‘Coach, get Aaron. You got to get Aaron.'”

By the time Matta relented to Sullinger’s plea to offer his AAU teammate a scholarship, it appeared to be too late, as Craft had already committed to play college basketball for coach Bruce Pearl at Tennessee.

“When I was first committed, I was definitely just kind of focused and trying to enjoy my high school career,” Craft said. “I was glad to have the decision out of the way, and I was happy with my decision.”

To the delight of both Sullinger and Matta, Craft reconsidered his options as his junior year of high school came to a close, and he backed away from his commitment to Tennessee. Less than two weeks after de-committing from the Volunteers, Craft was the newest addition to OSU’s 2010 recruiting class.

“Once you started hitting AAU, I mean we had Jared over here and Jordan (Sibert) kind of just plant some things in my ear,” Craft said. “I definitely just had to reevaluate the decision I made in the fall.”

Sullinger didn’t deny playing a role in recruiting Craft to join him at OSU.

“I threw some text messages once I heard he was reevaluating,” Sullinger said. “Luckily, my buddy here, he came to Ohio State.”

Craft said he has enjoyed continuing his friendship with Sullinger at the college level.

“I’m just very pleased and happy with how everything has worked out,” Craft said. “It’s definitely just been great to have a person like Jared just beside me the whole way, and just to have that calming hand, and he’s definitely just a great guy to have around at all times.”

Sullinger and Craft have played key roles in helping advance OSU to its first 20-0 start since the 1961-62 season. Sullinger said the Buckeyes’ addition of Craft has made his college experience more enjoyable — both on and off the court.

“With a player like Aaron Craft, it was the best pickup we got,” Sullinger said. “It’s a real pleasure to have him, one as my friend, and two as a teammate.”

 

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