There isn’t a more polarizing player in all of college basketball right now than Aaron Craft.
Ohio State fans in particular love him for obvious reasons, but he garners plenty of hate as well. In fact, he was the only current player to make Grantland’s most hated college basketball players of the last 30 years bracket.
It is a strange phenomenon, but partially because of the divisive nature of Craft’s game, the argument can be made that he is both overrated and underrated at the same time.
Before we get into that contradiction, it’s time for some full disclosure: Aaron Craft is my favorite player in all of college basketball to watch. I always strive to take off my Scarlet and Gray glasses anytime I write about the Buckeyes, but I feel like you should be aware of this grain of salt as you read this column.
With that out of the way, is Craft overrated or underrated, and is it possible that one player can be both?
First, let’s take a look at those that probably overrate the Ohio State senior.
Obviously, Buckeye fans are going to fall into this category, but how could they not love him? If someone who played with the type of passion, energy and devotion that Craft does every night out regardless of the opponent wore your school colors, you would love and defend him as well.
These are the same fans that Craft is diving on top of as he lays out to save loose balls and interacting with on a regular basis across campus. That’s not even mentioning the fact that a few card-carrying members of Buckeye Nation may or may not be drawn to those rosy cheeks of his. Just listen to the screams Craft receives when his name is announced at the Schottenstein Center.
In addition to Ohio State supporters, the argument can be made that national commentators as a whole have the tendency to overrate Craft as well.
Throw out every generic and cliche adjective that is typically used for scrappy and undersized point guards who excel on defense and bring intangibles and leadership to the floor, and Craft has been described that way at one time or another (gritty, tough, blue-collar, coach on the floor, etc.).
These national announcers seem to harken back to the “good old days” when everyone hustled, defense really mattered and SportsCenter didn’t load its top 10 highlight package with dunk after dunk. Whether these “good old days” ever actually existed or are purely a product of a hyperbolic nostalgia is an argument for a different day, but Craft possesses all of those traits that make fundamentals-obsessed high school coaches and commentators salivate.
While these members of the overrating Craft camp love his defense, intangibles and everything else that he brings to the floor, they often ignore or simply overlook some of the red flags that accompany Craft’s game.
Generally, players improve the longer they stay in school, but Craft’s jump shooting has regressed during his three years on campus. As a sophomore he shot 50 percent from the field and 36 percent from downtown, while those totals dipped to 41.7 percent and 30 percent respectively as a junior.
Craft needs other offensive options around him, and he isn’t exactly suited to carry an offense by himself, which is certainly an issue if we are talking about including Craft in the top echelon of stars in the game. He doesn’t get to the free-throw line with much regularity for someone who handles the ball as much as he does either.
However, if the “overrated camp” often overlook these red flags, those that tend to underrate Craft may dwell on them too much. It’s pretty clear-cut who falls in the “underrating camp”—opposing fanbases.
All of the things that Craft does that endears him to Ohio State fans drives supporters of Ohio State’s Big Ten rivals crazy. And let’s be fair Buckeyes, no Michigan or Michigan State fan is going to enjoy tuning into a primetime rivalry clash and listening to Dick Vitale salivate over Craft’s defense and hustle for 40 minutes.
These fans scoff when Craft is mentioned among the best players in college basketball and will be quick to point out that Craft often gets the benefit of plenty of 50/50 calls thanks to a defensive reputation that he has developed over his career (and frankly speaking, they probably aren’t wrong).
Just ask Iowa State fans about bang-bang calls that go Craft’s way.
There may be more talented offensive options on Thad Matta’s roster, but Craft is the face of the Buckeyes, one of America’s favorite teams to hate (more so on the football side, but that certainly translates over to the hardwood).However, the loathing that these fans have for everything Brutus Buckeye and Craft by extension causes a premature dismissal of just how valuable Craft really is.
Ohio State wins games (and three of the past four Big Ten regular season and tournament titles) on the back of its suffocating defense. Craft is the leader of that defense (and the team in general) and has the ability to completely negate even the best players in the country.
Just as an example, nobody matched up better with national player of the year Trey Burke the past two years.
Craft can alter the outcomes of games with his steals, drawn charges and pressure alone. There really is no other player quite like him across the college hoops landscape, and Craft is the rare opponent that forces coaches to game-plan for his defense alone.
Speaking of opposing coaches, how do they feel about the Buckeyes’ leader?
CBS Sports recently performed an anonymous poll among college basketball coaches and asked them which player they would add to their team if they could choose anyone in the country. Craft received the fourth-most votes and beat out every player on Kentucky’s roster, Jabari Parker, C.J. Fair, Mitch McGary and plenty of other household-name superstars.
In fact, only Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott and Andrew Wiggins received more support from opposing coaches.
The anonymous quote included in the article from one of the coaches who chose Craft perfectly sums up the polarizing nature of the Buckeye point guard:
I love what Craft brings to the table, each and every night on both ends of the floor. And he is a bonafide leader. And that everyone loves to hate on him. He's the perfect model of the kid you hate with a passion if you are playing against him, but you would want on your team every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
It is clear Craft garners plenty of support and respect from opposing coaches, which should certainly carry some weight when debating Craft’s ultimate value as a collegiate star. However, at the end of the day your opinion on Craft likely is the result of where your rooting interests lie.
The truth, as is the case with many arguments in life, probably lies somewhere in the middle, meaning he may just be perfectly rated. He is arguably the top defender in all of college basketball but doesn’t have the sexy offensive firepower that other stars do.
So what do you think—is Aaron Craft overrated or underrated?
Follow and interact with Ohio State basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.