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CHICAGO — Contrary to popular belief, the smartest basketball player in the Big Ten is not perfect.
Aaron Craft once got a B-plus.
Yes, the Ohio State guard who scored a 32 on the ACT his sophomore year at Liberty-Benton, was valedictorian of his class, and plans to become a doctor still burns from the chemistry class that got away his first quarter of college.
“It was my fault,” Craft said. “I really thought that college and high school were almost the same. I did really well on the first test, didn’t quite study enough for the [exam], and there was information I hadn’t seen before.”
A day after the blemish was official, his father, John, texted him: “The sun still came up, huh?”
Aaron wasn’t so sure.
“I’m glad I’ve been able to bounce back,” he said.
Think Craft, a junior who helped lead the No. 10 Buckeyes into today’s Big Ten Tournament title game, is competitive on the court?
You should see him in the classroom.
Though invaluable to Ohio State’s pursuit of a deep run in the NCAA tournament — coach Thad Matta calls the all-conference junior the best defender he’s seen in his nine years in the Big Ten — Craft may be even more respected in academia.
He indeed bounced back. Now with a 3.92 grade-point average despite a rugged pre-med track — his spring semester courses eeeeeeeinclude Organic Chemistry, Macronutrients, and Kinesiology — Craft was honored last month as Capital One’s Academic All-American of the year in Division I college basketball.
Hesitant to talk about his basketball honors, the human nutrition major called this recognition “huge,” and those who taught and coached him at Liberty-Benton know he is not putting you on.
Before gaining acclaim as one of the nation’s most gritty defensive players and Cosmopolitan magazine’s “Hottest Guy” of March Madness last year, this was a kid who took competitions with his buddies over who could record the lowest percent of error in chemistry experiments down to the hundredths of a decimal place, memorized the mathematical constant, Pi (3.14), to 68 decimal places just for fun, and never settled for a mere perfect grade.
“Aaron could have over 100 percent, but without a doubt, he will be one of the first ones to turn in the extra-credit project,” Liberty-Benton principal Brenda Frankart said. “He doesn’t need it, but he can’t stand not to do it.”
Like with basketball, Craft embraces school as a competition, another challenge to be vanquished. At Liberty-Benton, he pined to beat his friends in an unusually high-achieving Class of 2010.
Craft recalled he and his classmates, including close friend and chief academic rival Brett Pasche, eagerly comparing results after teachers passed back the latest exam.
“We were just trying to one-up each other and have those bragging rights until the next test,” said Craft, who plans to attend medical school after his basketball career.
Ben Gerken, who taught Craft’s calculus class, recalled a student who always stayed minutes after the bell to master one final problem, then dashed through the halls to his next class. When Justin Shank told his sophomore class no student at the school had ever earned a perfect score on the math section of the Ohio Graduation test, Craft was determined to change that.
“I threw the bone out there that if someone can get a perfect score on the OGT, I’ll take them out to dinner wherever you want to go,” Shank said.
Craft aced the test, but let Shank off with breakfast at Bob Evans.
Later that year, Craft took the ACT with a clear target: The 30 his older brother, Brandon, had scored. So he raised the family bar by two points — a score shared by the average freshman at Harvard.
It is also a score, Aaron would gladly tell you, that still stands in the Craft family. His younger sister, Cait, now a freshman on the OSU women’s basketball team, earned a 30 her first try and took it twice more — “Just to try to better Aaron,” John said.
Still, the competition endures, with the Rubik’s Cube among the latest platforms.
“It’s so competitive,” John said, “that I caught them taking apart the cube and taking 3-and-One Oil to grease up the pivots on the inside so they could spin it faster.”
Craft is admittedly more of a numbers than words guy, though try telling that to his teammates, who know they must spruce up their grammar in the guard’s earshot.
“I do correct their English because I’m trying to prepare them for a situation where they might be with someone important and they don’t want to have the same mistake there,” Craft said with a smile last year, his teammates laughing beside him. “It just bothers me when they use bad English.”
Try telling that, too, to the student manager of Craft’s basketball and football teams at Liberty-Benton. When the senior English class was assigned to write an essay about someone who inspired them, Craft and Pasche chose to honor their disabled classmate. They felt bad he did not have the same opportunities, but admired his unfailingly bright outlook.
Frankart got Craft’s permission to share the essay with the student manager.
“Who do you think wrote that?” she asked him.
The student had no idea.
“Then when I told him,” Frankart said, “he just broke down and cried.”
Three years later, she sees the same driven but leveled Craft at Ohio State and his legacy endure at Liberty-Benton.
Shank smiled one recent day when he overheard one of his students say he was memorizing Pi to 69 decimal places — one more than Craft, the star who made school cool.
“I know Aaron doesn’t want all the attention, but he definitely deserves it,” Shank said. “He’s a special kid. They only come along once in a lifetime.”
As for Craft’s misstep in freshman chemistry, he’s still peeved but said, “I’m just glad it happened early.”
After all, to those for whom perfect is not good enough, he doesn’t want to be a bad role model.
“It’s amazing how hard work can pay off in a way like this,” Craft said of his recent academic honor, “and the way we can continue to be models for younger people. The opportunity to represent the university in this standard, that doesn’t really happen that often, especially in a sport like basketball. Everything this university has given me and provided me, this was a way to give back, and it really means a lot.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.