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Arizona Wildcats prepare for the Tim Tebow of college basketball

Aaron Craft

Aaron Craft is the “heart and soul” of Ohio State, says Arizona coach Sean Miller. Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Grantland.com recently produced a 32-player bracket of the most hated college basketball players of the past 30 years.

Ohio State junior guard Aaron Craft was a No. 7 seed in the “2000s” region.

Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller has a different view.

“If he’s not one of your favorite players, then you don’t like college basketball,” Miller said Monday.

It depends. Perhaps he’s the Bobby Hurley of his day. A point guard who looks like you should be beating up and kicking around the court. Cheeks flushed, not big enough, bad jump shot. And then he finds a way to beat you, the gutty overachiever who seems almost too good to be true.

There is usually a pushback against a player who has that kind of narrative.

Easy to love. Easy to hate.

Like this guy:

“He has that Tim Tebow quality,” Miller said.

“Tebow, at Florida, it wasn’t just his performance on the field, but who he was as a person, the leadership that he provided, the competitive spirit he embodied. It seemed to spread through Florida’s football team, and Aaron Craft does the same thing for Ohio State basketball.”

Arizona will get a first-hand look at what he does Thursday in the Sweet 16 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The sixth-seeded Wildcats will take on the second-seeded Buckeyes starting at 4:47 p.m.

Craft is coming off one of those performances Sunday that adds to his legend while fueling the haters. He missed the front end of two one-and-one free throw situations and missed a jumper with 29 seconds left before hitting the game-winning 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds remaining against Iowa State.

The play everyone is talking about is the charge he took underneath the basket with 1:41 remaining — when it should have been a blocking call.

“That’s a difficult call,” Miller said.

“The thing about Aaron Craft is he always puts his team in position to receive that call, because he draws charges, he plays so hard, he dives on the floor for loose balls. Guys like him, a lot of time, get that call because of who they are and because they have earned it through the course of the game.

“He always seems to be in the right place, so when he’s in that position late in the game, it’s as if he’s in the right place.”

Craft averages 10.0 points and 4.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game, leading an offense that usually moves much more seamlessly than Arizona’s. The Buckeyes average 10.5 turnovers per game. The Wildcats are at 13.1.

“It’s not about scoring points for him,” Miller said. “It’s about being a point guard.”

And about being a pest on defense.

“His defense is just contagious,” Miller said.

“He puts a lot of energy and emphasis on defense, and he’s also talented in that area. There are a lot of guys who want to play hard, but they’re limited. He has exceptional quickness and quick hands, and he’s strong. He anticipates really well.”

Arizona senior point guard Mark Lyons says the coaching staff tends to “big everybody up” as a way to motivate him for the challenge. Consider Craft appropriately bigged up.

“Part of what make makes him such a special basketball player is who he is as a person,” Miller said.

“He’s a 4.0 student. He’s an incredible leader, as a great of a competitor as you will find. … All the things that you can say to give him incredible respect, that’s where I’m at.”

Arizona fans will join the party, loving to hate Craft during the game. But if they still hate him after 7 p.m. Thursday, that means he will have won again.

Related from the News Journal: Defense is in Aaron Craft’s DNA

Aaron Craft

Aaron Craft battles for loose ball against Iowa State on Sunday. Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

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