|Aaron Craft sets the tone for Ohio State on the defensive end. (Getty Images)|
NEW ORLEANS -- Long before he was known as the nation's premiere perimeter defender, well prior to him being regarded as one of the elite point guards in the country, Aaron Craft had another claim to fame.
He was the kid who got Bruce Pearl fired.
"Aaron Craft was a victim," Pearl said.
Craft was an unheralded point guard, and Jared Sullinger's AAU sidekick, when he committed to Pearl and the Tennessee Vols back in September of 2008. He, along with Josh Selby and Jordan McRae, all visited Pearl's house in the fall of that year, and had no clue that it was a violation -- one that would ultimately cost Pearl his job in Knoxville.
Craft declined to comment for the story here in New Orleans, in fear of taking away the focus from Saturday's national semifinal contest against Kansas. However, Craft spoke to CBSSports.com last season and said he had no knowledge that he was breaking a rule by being at Pearl's house.
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It all came down to a photo of Craft and Pearl, one taken at Pearl's house back in 2008. It was against NCAA rules for Pearl to host the trio on an unofficial visit. No one still quite knows who faxed the picture to the NCAA, but it wound up being Pearl's undoing. When questioned by the NCAA, Pearl initially lied and said he didn't know where it was taken.
"It was my responsibility to protect his eligibility and say we'd love to have you over the house, but you cannot," Pearl said. "I didn't do that. He's a victim."
"We've honestly never felt like the victims," Craft's father, John, told CBSSports.com. "It was a bad set of circumstances, but there's no ill feelings. We have no bad thoughts about the man."
Craft has moved on. He's gone from a virtual unknown in recruiting circles to, what former Ohio State star Jim Jackson calls the best on-ball defender he's seen since Mookie Blaylock. Pearl was one of the first to become a Craft believer, when he was watching All-Ohio Red in the summer following Craft's sophomore campaign in high school. He was there to get a glimpse at Sullinger, just in case the skilled and then-rotund big man didn't elect to stay home and play his college ball in Columbus.
"This kid couldn't shoot it at all, but he didn't have to," Pearl recalled. "No one could get by him and he was always the first one diving on the floor for loose balls. He was the reason why that team was winning."
The team did plenty of that, going an astounding 221-9 over a three-year span, while winning an amazing 30 of 33 high-level tournaments. Craft's reputation began to gain traction through the team's success, even though Sullinger and Michigan State big man Adreian Payne received most of the attention. His verbal commitment to Tennessee came back in 2008, shortly after the now infamous photo was taken. However, Craft began to have seconds thoughts and re-opened his recruitment on Memorial Day weekend of 2009.
Sources told CBSSports.com that the Crafts had concerns about the ongoings in the program; Craft said it was more about wanting to be a Buckeye.
"Tennessee was awesome. It was nothing they did," Craft said. "It was 6 1/2-hours away and I was just unsure."
Sullinger prodded Ohio State coach Thad Matta to bring his point guard aboard. It was a combination of Sullinger's relentlessness and Craft's continued improvement that ultimately resulted in a scholarship offer.
"It was the best fit for me," Craft said.
Sullinger is obviously a huge reason why Ohio State has come this far. He'll be a lottery pick come June. Teammates Deshaun Thomas and William Buford could both work their way into the first round as well -- if Thomas elects to leave Columbus after this season. But Craft is the most important player on this Buckeyes team. No, not just because he's the point guard, either. He sets the tone on the defensive end and also makes certain everyone is more than content when the Buckeyes are on the offensive end.
He doesn't look the part with his small stature and rosy cheeks, but there may be no one able to change the game on the defensive end -- besides Kentucky's Anthony Davis -- more than Craft.
John Craft first sensed something special with his son on the defensive end back in the fourth grade. "He did things that weren't normal as a fourth-grader," the elder Craft said.
"It's what I've hung my hat on since I started playing," Aaron added.
Craft is the All-American kid. He got his first B-plus in chemistry last fall. He wants to major in pre-med. He runs a couple of Bible studies each week, coaches the intramural managers team -- and speaks like someone twenty years his elder. He boasts every possible intangible on the court -- and the only weakness to speak of is his perimeter shot. Matta has said numerous times he'd be ecstatic if one of his daughters wound up marrying Craft -- or someone just like him.
Everyone loves Craft now. Opposing coaches marvel at his ability to lock-down the most talented guards in the country. His teammates rave about him.
Pearl watches from a far, out of the business, as the first one to truly recognize his abilities.
"I've never been able to talk to him and I want to so badly," Pearl said. "It's just not appropriate right now, but I'm deeply sorry I dragged them into that situation. I'm so happy for Aaron. He couldn't have made a better choice."
"It's all worked out fine," John Craft added.
Craft has forged a different identity, no longer known as the kid who got Bruce Pearl fired.