In anticipation of the Final Four, we're highlighting four players whose very presence on the court is a reason to watch. Not that you need any convincing, probably. Part one, Ryan O'Hanlon's tribute to Louisville guard and college kid extraordinaire Russ Smith, is here. Part two, Josh Weill's salute to Kansas's extraordinary and extraordinarily patient Thomas Robinson, is here.
I get Sports Illustrated in my mailbox each week. I have no idea why, since I haven't subscribed to the magazine in years and it's addressed to someone who has never lived in my building. There's usually some good stuff in the old rag—a #longread about tennis pros who survived the Titanic, for example—but I come here to discuss this week's cover, and specifically the man pictured on the cover: Ohio State sophomore point guard and inexplicable, inexorable pain in my neck Aaron Craft. Ugh.
It didn't have to be this way, Sports Illustrated. This week's cover was a regional one. One features Michael Kidd-Gilchrist mid-stride, endless potential, accelerating into the open court, trailed by the spindly Anthony Davis; a possession likely to end in two points for the Wildcats. Another features Tyshawn Taylor contorting his body while flying through the lane and shooting. The third features Craft rebounding and making a really hilarious face. The caption reads "Aaron Craft helps the Buckeyes snatch a spot in New Orleans." Helps. All Aaron Craft does is help. That's why he is my least favorite player in college basketball, and part of why I can't stop watching him.
After becoming one of the reasons for Bruce Pearl getting fired as head coach of Tennessee—he was photographed in Pearl's house on a visit, "a violation of NCAA rules because high school juniors aren't allowed to engage college coaches away from campus"—Craft decided to stay close to his hometown of Findlay, Ohio and attend the local land-grant school in Columbus, and be a key part in yet another outstanding recruiting class by Thad Matta. Craft has since become the subject of a cottage industry devoted to praising his tenacious defense. A scrappy, boy-next door type, star quarterback—that's the point guard of football!—during his high school years, routinely the subject of hosannas because of his willingness to put a hand in your face or affect your team's point guard's shot, to give it his all? No wonder Aaron Craft is deplorable: he's the most-Duke player left in the tournament. This season he's even been learning at the feet of another despicable Duke-branded ex-plucky QB/PG: Greg Paulus, Ohio State's video coordinator.
The troubling thing about Aaron Craft is that he is legitimately great at defense. He frustrates the opposing team's guards to a baffling degree. Ohio State fans cheer for him, and they're right to do it. But when you don't root for any teams in particular—liberated fandom is delightful when it comes to college ball—it's easy to grow to dislike a 20-year-old college sophomore because his style of play is annoying and he is going to do his damnedest to ensure that a grunty, slogging Big Ten game stays that way. It's even easier when sports media types insist that you respect him for his defensive wizardry. And do you remember the stupid face he's making on the cover of the magazine? What a doofus.
In college basketball and the NBA, there are a lot of players who are hateable, but are beloved by their fans precisely because of how much the other team's fans hate them. Manu Ginobili is one, I think. Joakim Noah definitely is, even though he's really just a gigantic goofball. Aaron Craft, should he make it the the show—and if not, he's majoring in exercise science and will be coaching somewhere after he graduates—is going to be one of the biggest fucking pests in the league. He'll be the 6th or 7th man on some playoff team who just won't stop. He will pick Vince Carter's pocket and score on fast-break layups with abandon. He's going to complete precise chest-passes and occasionally hit a corner three. He's going to help a team win because that's what he does. It's going to be really great for the fans of that team and extremely obnoxious for everyone else.