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Freshman point guard Aaron Craft has to earn his stripes

Cody Cousino / Asst. multimedia editor

Coach Thad Matta’s starting five, laden with incumbent veterans and arguably the best freshman in the nation, doesn’t have room for Aaron Craft — a point guard who arguably could start for any other team in the country.

That doesn’t mean the smallest player in the seven-man rotation doesn’t get his playtime. Averaging 28 minutes per game, Craft is fifth on the team, ahead of starting forward Dallas Lauderdale.

Only the other four usual starters, junior guard William Buford, freshman forward Jared Sullinger, senior forward David Lighty and senior guard Jon Diebler play more than the freshman.

He is the rotation’s only true point guard — so, what’s keeping him from starting?

Barring injury, it doesn’t look like he will be slotted into the starting lineup anytime soon. Combined, the team’s four veteran starters have played 485 games, starting in 390 of them. It’s that experience which contributes largely to Matta’s thinking when deciding whom to start each game.

“With who we’re starting, I love the experience that we have,” Matta said. “You’ve got four guys out there that have started a lot of games in the scarlet and gray. You’ve got a pretty good freshman in Jared, and I’ve been pretty pleased with how we’ve started a majority of our games this season.”

Though he averages a pedestrian 6.8 points per game, Craft leads the team in assists, averaging 4.8, and is the team’s second most efficient offensive perimeter player. Only Diebler’s 49.5 percent from the field is better than Craft’s 49 percent.

Craft also leads the team in turnovers. His 50 on the season are 10 more than Buford’s 40 while averaging 2.3 per game. Despite those giveaways, the team’s veterans consider Craft an asset.

“He’s a perfect fit for us,” Lighty said. “He comes in and runs the offense and runs the team, and plays defense at the highest level I’ve seen for a freshman in college basketball.”

But Craft deflects the individual praise to his team’s defense as a whole.

“We’ll have times when some people play great individual defense, but at the same time it’s five guys out there. We, all five, need to be connected, and when one person doesn’t do the thing they’re supposed to, then the whole defense breaks down,” Craft said. “It doesn’t matter how great of defense you play as an individual.”

Craft is a victim of circumstance when it comes to starting for this version of the Buckeyes. If he were to replace Lauderdale in the starting lineup, that would leave Sullinger as the only capable big man on the floor.

It’s unlikely he would replace Diebler or Lighty either, simply because Diebler is the team’s best shooter and Matta regards Lighty as the nation’s top defender.

That would leave Buford as the lone candidate to take a seat to Craft, but the junior is the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 13.5 points per game.

One thing is certain: Starting or not, Craft is gaining valuable experience in his first year as a Buckeye.

“Aaron’s so unique that he would learn if he was starting (or) if he was coming off the bench, and it’s just sort of who he is,” Matta said. “I haven’t coached a lot of guys like him that think at the level that he thinks, especially at his age, and (he) really wants to understand and know everything that’s going to happen or could happen.”

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