COLUMBUS — The Big Ten’s student sections could write the book on the basketball player they most love to hate.
Ohio State senior Aaron Craft has heard it all. Michigan’s Maize Rage chanted the name of his mother, Wendy, during every timeout last year. Iowa’s Hawk’s Nest singled out his sister, Cait. Penn State’s Nittany Nation went the fiancée route.
That’s just the PG-rated stuff. When the No. 22 Buckeyes (19-6, 6-6) visit Illinois (14-11, 3-9) today at the State Farm Center — where the Orange Krush bills itself as the "craziest cheering section in America" — they will likely receive their usual four-letter welcome.
And ever the showman, the students’ favorite target will do his best to keep them going. Craft will do nothing.
"They get more angry when you don't say anything or acknowledge them," he said with a smile this week. "I like to rile them up by doing that."
For Craft, the unrelenting banter is mostly in good fun. The Liberty-Benton graduate knows the drill as one of the nation’s most polarizing players, as the game-changing defensive pest and near-perfect student visiting fans can’t help but try to bring back to earth. Ohio State coach Thad Matta calls the taunts and jeers the ultimate compliment.
Yet the combination of tinderbox gyms and rampant emotions can take a darker turn. Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart’s three-game suspension for shoving a middle-aged Texas Tech agitator in the final seconds of a game last weekend cast a renewed light on the volatile potential of the player-fan relationship.
Matta cracked that he has thick skin dating to his days as a prep star for the Hoopeston Cornjerkers in Illinois.
"So you can you imagine some of the things I heard in my time," he said. "But I hope that all universities will take more of a precaution with what’s being said by fans, because it can get downright brutal."
Some Big Ten coaches said the Smart incident was an ugly but inevitable product of increasingly boorish spectator behavior. Players these days have no escape from the fringe of hostile fans, be it on Twitter or in road venues.
At Missouri, for instance, students in a longtime unsanctioned fan group known as the Antlers have been booted from repeated basketball games this year after berating opponents with sexist, homophobic, and otherwise outrageous chants, according to the university. Among the few arrows suitable for print: During a game against Southeastern Louisiana, students made light of Hurricane Katrina and cried, "Shoot him like a horse," as a visiting player lay injured in the silent arena.
"If they were saying to your son or daughter what they’re saying to some of our players, you’d be fighting too," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of fan behavior.
Added Iowa’s Fran McCaffery: "In basketball, the fans are right on top of you. For a player to go after a guy … based on what I've heard, I'm surprised it hasn't happened more."
Still, no matter what — and it remains unclear what the fan said to Smart — those same coaches tell their players there is never an excuse to retaliate.
“I’m sure every coach in the country is going to be reminding their team of that," Indiana’s Tom Crean said. “You can’t ever let anybody get in the way of your career, in the way of your responsibility to your team.”
On the Big 12 coaches’ teleconference, Kansas’ Bill Self said, "the whole thing is, you don't communicate with fans, and it's water off your back."
In the Big Ten, no player is on the frontline more than the rosy-cheeked Craft, heckled by visiting fans for precisely the reason he is admired by the rest of society. Craft is the best defender Matta said he’s seen in 10 years in the conference, a pre-med major with a 3.93 GPA, and one of five Division I players named to this year’s Allstate Good Works team for his community service. (And don’t get rival fans started on their contention that Craft gets all the calls.)
Craft’s father, John, said he usually enjoys the passion in opposing arenas.
"When it's the student body coming up with the chant and getting creative, at first it was kind of cool," he said. "I would say it’s 98 percent school spirit where there is no maliciousness to it. The language can be over the top, but I’m willing to give them a break on that."
John Craft’s issue is when adults become profane or personal.
"Those guys can handle the students heckling them," he said, "but I think part of the problem is when a so-called adult crosses the line. I don't think that's right.
Craft, for his part, said he has never found himself on the verge of snapping. That would give the fans too much satisfaction.
"It's always tough in the heat of a battle, when emotions run high, especially if things aren't going well," he said. "But [the crowd doesn’t] affect me much. They can yell all they want, but the best thing we can do is have more points than they do at the end of the game and have the gym be quiet."