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Defense is Craft’s calling card, like it or not

It’s called physiognomy. It’s the practice of figuring out a person’s character and personality by studying his face.

Ancient Greek philosophers professed it. Japanese naval brass practiced it with their sailors in World War II. And Thursday you could have done it, too, were you with Aaron Craft as he stood patiently in the Ohio State dressing room at UD Arena and answered questions of every stripe for nearly 30 minutes.

The tenacious Buckeye guard is one of the most polarizing players in college basketball.

Lots of folks love him, be it President Barack Obama and OSU football coach Urban Meyer or that fawning pair of middle-aged women in Section 213 of the arena who kept calling out to him as the Buckeyes practiced for tonight’s NCAA tournament game with Iona .

He’s also the guy opposing teams — sometimes the players and often the fans — just love to hate. He’s like gum on the bottom of your shoe, only more irritating.

His trademark is his “up-in-your-business” defense. He’s constantly swiping at the ball, forcing you to dribble a direction you don’t want to go and then trying to take the charge when you do go toward the basket.

“Defense is my calling card, it’s the one way I learned I can impact what is happening on the court and I like to make the game a little uglier than a lot of people like,” he said with an unrepentant shrug. “I know it can help our team be successful, so I don’t care if opposing fans like it or not.”

And they don’t.

Before the Bucks’ game at Illinois this year, 16,000 people booed him in pregame introductions. At Penn State, fans chanted the name of his girlfriend.

In the Big Ten tournament semifinal., Michigan State’s Derrick Nix was given a Flagrant 1 foul when he cuffed Craft as he drove down the lane.

Those “Two Faces of Aaron” were right there on display Thursday in the dressing room.

Creeping just beneath his right eyebrow is a souvenir scar from the Buckeyes’ game with Long Beach State in early December. “I went up to get a rebound and their guy also went up and his elbow caught me pretty good,” he said. “Got about 11 stitches.”

But the thing you notice first when looking at him are those always-rosy red cheeks. He looks like he belongs in a Norman Rockwell painting.

That’s one reason Cosmopolitan magazine has named him two years in a row in its “Hottest Guys of March Madness” list.

A Columbus TV guy pursued that thought: “You appeal to girls and women over 50 and 60. How do you account for that appeal, sir?”

The 6-foot-2 junior just laughed: “I don’t know. The publicity helps, but if anything I’d have to say the red cheeks. For whatever reason that must do it.”

On the basketball court, though, that boy-next-door persona gets a Jekyll-Hyde makeover and he turns into a stalker in sneakers.

A first-team All-Big Ten pick, Craft also won All-Big Ten defensive honors this season and it’s that designation that has gotten him praise from President Obama and Urban Meyer in the past few days.

Just before he left for Israel, Obama filled out his NCAA tournament bracket in front of ESPN cameras. When he got to Ohio State, who he penciled into the Final Four, he paused, then said, “Craft’s defense is unbelievable.”

That moment made Craft smile again Thursday: “Obviously when you get a shout out from the president of the United States it’s pretty crazy. … The other guys have given me crap about it, but I’m going to cling to it and hopefully I don’t disappoint him.”

As for Meyer, he was speaking at a National Football Foundation banquet in Toledo when his thoughts turned to Craft, who grew up just down I-75 in Findlay.

Meyer jokingly told the crowd he was going to get Craft in a football uniform and play him at safety or quarterback. “Braxton is gonna sit,” he said of Braxton Miller, the reigning Big Ten MVP and a Heisman frontrunner for next season.

The more Meyer focused on Craft, the more he gushed: “Is he the best? I just love that guy.”

The flipside of appreciation came from some of the Iona players before they left New York for Dayton. Although the Gaels are a 15 seed, they gave no quarter to the second-seeded Buckeyes.

Junior guard Sean Armand told the New York Post it wouldn’t be an upset of Iona won.

The Gaels star is senior guard Lamont “Momo” Jones, who is one of the nation’s most prolific scorers. He averages 23 points per game and likely will find Craft on him. Although he said he hadn’t seen much of the OSU guard, he told the Post, “I don’t feel like there’s anybody who can stop me.”

They should make for a marquee match-up in this evening’s game. To give Jones a little better insight maybe he should speak to some of the players from top-seeded Indiana, who go up against James Madison right before his game.

Prior to the Hoosiers practice Thursday, two of their guards talked about Craft, a guy they’ve faced often in Big Ten play.

“I think people just don’t like him because he’s pesky on defense,” Victor Oladipo said with a grin. “No one likes a pest who gets up into you and does whatever it takes not to let you do what you want.

“But I was actually with Aaron a lot this summer at camps and he is one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met. He’s really humble. He’s a great person to talk to and hang out with. It’s just when he gets to the court.”

Fellow Hoosier guard Jordan Hulls agreed: “You’ve got to admire what he does and the way he runs his club. Foes don’t like him because he’s always creating havoc out there.

“It’s one of those situations where you love to have him on your team, but you hate to play against him. That makes all the difference in how you see him.”

Kind of like looking at his face and either seeing a well-deserved scar in his brow or and those rosy red Cosmo cheeks.

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