Ohio State's Aaron Craft practices on Wednesday in Los Angeles.
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LOS ANGELES — Here’s how you really turn Aaron Craft’s cheeks red. Compare him to Tim Tebow.
That’s what Arizona coach Sean Miller did as he rolled his eyes at fans who love to hate the Ohio State point guard.
"If he isn't one of your favorite players, then you don't like college basketball," he said in the lead-up to tonight’s West regional semifinal between the second-seeded Buckeyes’ and No. 6-seed Arizona at the Staples Center.
Miller sees in Craft what he admired about the former Florida quarterback, whose success, clean image, and relentless work ethic inspired adoration — and backlash.
"Craft has that Tim Tebow quality," he said of the Findlay native. "At Florida, it wasn't just his performance on the field, but the kind of person he was, the leadership that he provided, and the competitive spirit that he embodied that spread throughout Florida's football team. Aaron Craft does the same thing for Ohio State basketball.
"His defense is contagious, and so is his competitive fire. He's not a great 3-point shooter, but when the game is on the line, [like] against Iowa State [Sunday], if you're a betting man, then you're going to bet that shot is going to go in. That's just who he is, an incredible person, student, basketball, and leader. He is the heart and soul of Ohio State."
Craft laughed Thursday when told of the comparison, joking he couldn’t wait to tell one of his close friends from Findlay. His buddy’s recent claim that Craft and Tebow were "almost the same person" had been validated.
"If I had half the success he had, it would be great," Craft said. "I don’t really feel worthy to be in the same category as him, just the way he’s handled everything and how he’s had to handle a lot of scrutiny. It’s very humbling."
ON GUARD: The Los Angeles Times issued a word of warning to the Buckeyes.
"Arizona will win this year’s NCAA title if Mark Lyons plays the way he played last weekend in Salt Lake City," columnist Chris Dufresne wrote.
The Wildcats are riding Lyons’ boiling touch. A Xavier transfer, the 6-foot-1 senior combo guard scored a total of 50 points on 20-of-32 shooting in Arizona’s first-weekend routs of 11th-seeded Belmont and No. 14-seed Harvard.
"It always gets tougher the further you go in the tournament," Craft said. "You play great players, and as a defender, you always want to take away their go-to player. ... He’s definitely one of those players. He can score in a variety of ways and can get his shot off."
LITTLE NAMES, BIG GAMES: Ohio State is in what’s considered the least sexy regional, mainly because of the undercard — technically the second game — between 13th-seeded La Salle and ninth-seeded Wichita State.
Just ask any of the participants if they care.
"If you’re looking to see the household names, Kansas or UCLA or Kentucky, you’d have to look elsewhere," Explorers coach John Giannini said. "But frankly, it’s not a concern to us at all. The beautiful thing about the NCAA tournament is to see great teams that you don’t see every night and to see different players that you might see some day at the next level. If I’m a basketball fan, I’m really excited to see Wichita State play La Salle."
Wichita State (28-8) is in the Sweet 16 after stunning top-seeded Gonzaga 76-70 in the third round while La Salle, a tiny Catholic school in Philadelphia with the 1954 national title to its name, upset fourth-seeded Kansas State in its tourney opener before taking down No. 12-seed Ole Miss.
"If it’s the worst regional, good, great, I’m glad I’m here," Miller said.
DOUBLE DRIBBLES: Ohio State is 4-5 against the Sweet 16 field, with losses to Duke and Kansas, a split of regular-season meetings against Indiana, Michigan, and Michigan State, and a win over the Spartans in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. Arizona is 2-1 and has not played a remaining team since a 70-66 loss at Oregon on Jan. 10. The Wildcats beat Florida and Miami in nonconference play. ... OSU football coach Urban Meyer will be keeping a watchful eye on a pair of Sweet 16 games. Beyond the Buckeyes, Friday’s game between Florida and 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast University also holds a place near his heart. Meyer, of course, led the Gators to two national titles in six seasons in Gainesville while his daughter, Gigi, is a sophomore volleyball player at FGCU and plans to attend the game at Cowboys Stadium. Asked about his rooting interest, Meyer said, "Always a Gator." ... The Buckeyes hope their brief history against Arizona repeats itself. The schools’ only previous meeting came in 1971 at, coincidentally, the Bruin Classic in Los Angeles, with OSU winning 90-47.