OSU’s Craft, MSU’s Payne share special bond

CHICAGO — The biggest guys get off the bus first, especially in a tournament setting when other teams might be watching, and Michigan State’s Adreian Payne has always been one of those guys.

There were plenty of times he was just getting out of a van or even unfurling himself from a regular car, but Payne has been making that trek for a long time. For a long time, too, Ohio State’s Aaron Craft was just behind him. Craft doesn’t pass the eye test the way Payne does on the way in, but the Buckeyes guard generally leaves the gym after playing on the winning side.

This weekend’s Big Ten tournament is a reunion of sorts for Payne and Craft, who spent their high school days playing AAU together for the All-Ohio Red program. That really doesn’t tell the full story, though. Former Ohio State star Jared Sullinger was on the team, too. Ohio State’s recruiting class of 2010 had four players from that team.

That team got up and down the floor, shared the ball and got more than its share of easy baskets. With Sullinger and Payne under the basket, it’s fair to wonder how anybody else ever got a rebound.

“I really don’t know,” Payne said, laughing. “We’d get the rebound, get the outlet pass and score a few seconds later. That’s basically what we did.”

Their team rarely lost. Playing together for three years on the spring and summer AAU and travel-ball circuits starting the summer before their sophomore year in high school, the Craft-Payne-Sullinger All-Ohio Red team lost just nine games. All three summer seasons culminated in AAU national championships.

“I know it was nine losses, because I can recite what happened in all nine by heart,” the team’s head coach Quentin Rogers said. “It was at the point that we didn’t think we should lose ever.”

Best anyone has been able to tell — and most point to the ultra-sharp Craft for an exact answer — the team’s overall record was an astounding 221-9.

Two hundred twenty-one wins? … And just nine losses?

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” a smiling Sullinger said. “We didn’t lose very often.”

Sullinger, done for his rookie year with the Boston Celtics while recovering from back surgery, was in the front row at the United Center for the Big Ten tournament on Thursday. He was the tourney’s MVP two years ago.

Might one of his longtime friends win it this year?

The 6-10 Payne is playing his best basketball. He was a third-team All-Big Ten pick earlier this week, and he comes into Friday night’s quarterfinal vs. Iowa averaging career-bests of 10.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He’ll have a decision to make at the end of Michigan State’s season regarding the NBA Draft, where he could be a lottery pick.

Craft is playing his best basketball, too. He’s in a different role this season with Sullinger gone and Ohio State still searching for consistent outside shooting, but Craft has been aggressive offensively and has been all over the floor during the Buckeyes’ current five-game win streak that pushed them to the No. 2 seed in this tournament.

If Ohio State can beat Nebraska and Michigan State can beat Iowa Friday night, Craft and Payne will meet again in Saturday’s semifinals.

“I watch Aaron now and I just kind of smile, because he’s the same guy he was when I coached him,” Rogers said. “Relentless defender. What you see is what you get, a guy who’s very much in charge of the game.”

Rogers said Payne “always had touch on his jumper” and “always showed flashes of what he’s doing” this season at Michigan State.

“Five or so years ago, the potential was obvious, but (Payne) was a little green,” Rogers said. “It was just about maturity for him.

“Adreian was never a knucklehead. It was just a matter of him growing up a little bit, understanding that if he took his basketball business seriously all the time his ceiling was going to be very, very high.”

Also on their All-Ohio team were West Virginia guard Juwan Staten and two Ohio State transfers who sat out this season due to NCAA transfer rules, Jordan Sibert (Dayton) and J.D. Weatherspoon (Toledo). This All-Ohio team lost one game in the summer before its sophomore year, two the following summer and six in its final summer together after Sibert was lost to a broken leg.

It won 28 of 32 tournaments it entered.

“Very fun times,” Payne said. “When I see Aaron now, we joke about all the good times. But when we were playing, it was never fun for who we were playing. Aaron got us started on so many fast breaks with his defense.”

Sullinger played on a different AAU team in middle school and was no fan of Craft, considering him a pest. After they got on the same side, and after Craft’s initial commitment to play his college ball at Tennessee fell apart, it was Sullinger who became Craft’s most vocal supporter in pushing Ohio State coach Thad Matta to offer Craft a scholarship.

It worked out. And the All-Ohio reunion here this weekend extends beyond a potential Craft-Payne rubber match after their teams split the season series.

Friday’s second quarterfinal at the Big Ten tournament pits a couple of All-Ohio Red alums from the class behind Craft, Payne and Sullinger. Michigan’s Trey Burke was named Big Ten Player of the Year earlier this week. He’ll be guarded for much of Friday’s game by his longtime friend and former AAU teammate, Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson. Burke was a high school teammate of Sullinger’s at Columbus Northland High.

Sullinger (2009 and ’10) and Burke (2011) became the third and fourth alumni of the All-Ohio program to win Ohio’s Mr. Basketball award.

“I think maybe people have some misconceptions about AAU,” Rogers said. “There are different kinds of AAU basketball. There’s AAU on a small scale, at a local level. Then there’s AAU that’s run up and down the floor, don’t play defense … the kind that gets a bad rap. Then there’s elite-level AAU, the very best players.

“We played at the elite level. When I turn on a TV at this time of year, I see players we played against playing in the ACC tournament, the Big East tournament, the Big Ten tournament and so on. When I see (Craft and Payne) now, there’s no doubt that things like focusing on preparation and the high-level competition they played back then help them now.”

Among the players Craft and Payne’s AAU team regularly encountered on the spring and summer circuit were recent NBA lottery picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dion Waiters, Austin Rivers and Brandon Knight.

That All-Ohio team didn’t win all of its games — it just came close.

“With guys like Jared and Adreian underneath able to dominate the way they did, we were a tough out” Craft said. “My job was easy.”