Meet College Basketball's All-Lightning Rod Team in 2013-14 Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 6, 2013

Due to the sheer amount of media coverage that they receive, there are a handful of NCAA men's basketball players every season for whom it is impossible to maintain a lukewarm opinion.

Even years after they've graduated, certain names simply elicit an impassioned response among college basketball fans. Just think about players like Tyler Hansbrough, Jimmer Fredette, Adam Morrison, Joakim Noah or literally anyone who has ever worn a Duke uniform and you'll know what I mean.

This season, we have been blessed and cursed with a bevy of lightning rods. So many lightning rods that we were able to construct an entire starting rosterwith a coach, too!

You may not love or hate each of these players yet, but if you watch any college basketball this season, you'll inevitably fall into one of the camps before long.

Point Guard: Aaron Craft, Ohio State

Why we love him: Craft plays scrappy, hard-nosed defense and is always displaying those adorable rosy cheeks. He just seems like one of those players who is giving 110 percent of his effort 110 percent of the time.

If Craft was on your favorite team, you would love him more than you love most of your extended family. Point guards who can lead the team on both ends of the court only come around once in a great while, and they are greatly coveted when they do.

In the last 30 years of college basketball, Craft is probably most akin to Gary Payton, Steve Wojciechowski and, more recently, Peyton Siva. Each of those guys stayed in college for four years, becoming an even bigger headache to play against in each successive year.

If Craft's defense is even more intense this year than it was in 2012-13, he could catapult to the top of the list of most loved/hated players in the history of college hoops.

Why we hate him: He's good at what he does and he knows it. He actually admits to wanting people to think he's annoying. And while he is one of the best defenders in the country, his reputation seems to precede him as he gets away with reach-in foul after reach-in foul.

Craft is like a younger brother who puts his hand an inch from your face in the backseat of the family minivan while repeatedly telling you that he's not touching you. His singular mission in life is to get under your skin.

Another reason we hate him is because announcers just can't seem to shut up about him. Routine plays get praised while better than average ones are almost guaranteed to be replayed half a dozen times.

You'll inevitably hear about his leadership and his plays that "don't show up in the box score" at least once or twice per game. And unless you're rooting for Craft, you'll eventually get sick of hearing about him.

Shooting Guard: Russ Smith, Louisville

Why we love him: Smith has one of the better nicknames in college basketball: Russdiculous. That factoid alone makes him an instant crowd pleaser.

It's not just the name on the jersey, but how he wears it. Smith is a leader both on and off the court—usually in comical ways. Even though last year, senior point guard, Peyton Siva, was viewed as something of the heart and soul of the team, there was never any question whether Smith would be the one to start the team's obligatory Harlem Shake video.

(In case that didn't satiate your need to see Smith dancing, here's another video of his rendition of Michael Jackson's "Another Part of Me.")

Smith plays excellent perimeter defense, which more often than not turns into easy offense. For better or worse, he never shies away from an open shot. With the game on the line, there aren't many players you would rather have shooting the ball than Smith.

Why we hate him: Sometimes Russdiculous only seems to be interested in Russdiculous. Look no further than the final second of last year's National Championship. Leading by six with no hope of Michigan making a comeback, Smith bricked a free throw and visibly pouted.

Smith's supporters will tell you that he was disappointed in the fact that his missed free throw was the reason that bench players were unable to check into the game for one second of action with which they could tell their grandchildren that they played for the 2013 National Champions.

Most, however, believe that he was disappointed that the missed free throw kept him from reaching 10 points for just the fourth time all season.

Winning seems to be secondary to Smith's mission to get buckets. No matter the score, if he's on the floor he's looking for more.

It's an admirable trait until it keeps a player from enjoying team victories.  

Shooting Guard: Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss

Why we love him: Henderson plays college basketball the way many of us play online video games: winning is nice, but nowhere near as satisfying as getting into the head of one's opponent via in-game antics.

He has no fear and there is no limit to his range. He has that coveted "shooter's amnesia" in which four consecutive misses doesn't deter him, but rather seems to motivate him to believe that the next four shots are going in because of the law of averages.

Even his most ardent supporters would admit that Henderson can be more annoying than one of those painful pimples at the corner of a nostril. But at the end of the day, the man was almost single-handedly responsible for sending Ole Miss to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade.

Why we hate him: If you want to know about his checkered past with drugs, alcohol and counterfeit money, Andy Katz conducted a must-read interview with Henderson last month for ESPN the Magazine. I won't harp on his life story, but one doesn't need to be a token member of the Straight Edge society in order to view Henderson through a different kind of lens.

Even if you don't know or don't care about his off-court issues, he's enough of an unwelcome presence on the court to make your blood boil. Between the trash talking, the jersey popping and whatever cryptic message he's trying to convey when he puts his thumb on his forehead, he's the type of player you want to just run onto the court and smack for being arrogant.

There's a thin line between cocky and confident—a line that Henderson probably hasn't even seen since he was in high school.

For whatever reason, cocky athletes are just fun to root against. If you're not an Ole Miss fan, there's nothing you would rather see this season than Henderson missing a buzzer-beating shot and crumpling to the floor in despair a la Adam Morrison. If and when that happens in the NCAA Tournament, Twitter might explode.

Power Forward: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

Why we love him: What other choice do we have?

Wiggins has been pegged as the top pick in the 2014 NBA Draft since seemingly 1997. Even the people who don't normally watch college basketball—how do they live?—have an ear to the ground to find out how good this touted freshman is going to be.

Whether he's up to the task or not, Wiggins has basically been elevated to the status of savior of a game that has lost its national luster over the past several years.

Besides, rooting against Wiggins is the equivalent of playing the Don't Pass line in craps. The only way you're happy is if everyone else is miserable.

Why we hate him: He hasn't even played a game at the collegiate level and he's already being compared to the greatest players in the NBA? Come on, man!

Would that even fly in any other occupation? Let's say there's this restaurant that you love because it has the best waiters in the world. But now, every time you walk into the restaurant you're bombarded with people incessantly talking about this busboy who's going to be the best waiter you've ever seen.

I mean, let's at least see how well the kid does as a host first, am I right?

One can't even read a preview of the upcoming season without hearing something about Wiggins. Read enough preseason material and you're either dying to see this phenom in action or completely fed up with hearing about him.

One has to wonder if there's any room left for us to be impressed by him.

Center: Mitch McGary, Michigan

Why we love him: Usually when a player comes out of nowhere and leads his team to a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, he's gone just as suddenly as he arrived.

But every once in a while, guys like Stephen Curry turn down the chance to instantly turn tournament success into a first-round pick in the NBA draft by coming back to school for another year. When they do, people love them and want nothing more than for them to make it even further than they did the year before.

Michigan's run to the 2013 Championship Game wasn't anywhere near as surprising as Davidson's run to the 2008 Elite Eight, but McGary's monstrous contributions were certainly unexpected.

Despite just two double-doubles during the regular season, McGary averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in Michigan's six tournament games. The freshman who was finally given a chance to shine narrowly took a backseat to Florida Gulf Coast for the feel-good story of March Madness. 

Why we hate him: Enough with the love fest already. Sure, he was great in the tournament, but anyone over 6'5" should have been able to dominate in the paint against South Dakota State and VCU.

His dominance against Jeff Withey and Kansas was legitimately shocking, but it was just one game. And he wasn't nearly as noteworthy in the subsequent games against Florida, Syracuse or Louisville.

Where was that Kansas game all season? How can you expect McGary to be one of the best players in the Big Ten when he could barely accomplish anything in most of his conference games last season?

And why does nobody seem to care that McGary is dealing with a back injury in advance of what figures to be a very physical and grinding season for the big man when it was practically all anyone could say about Jared Sullinger after his sophomore year in college?

Maybe people don't actually despise McGary as much as they despise the people who won't stop gushing about him, but these are legitimate concerns that have people skeptical about a player showing up in most preseason All-American teams.

Coach: John Calipari, Kentucky

Why we love him: If you don't have at least some level of respect for Coach Cal, then you clearly aren't aware of his philanthropy.

Before Kentucky's Blue-White Scrimmage on October 29, Calipari took to Twitter to let the students know that he would be paying the Spring semester tuition for two lucky students in attendance.

That may seem like a publicity stunt for someone making more than $5 million per season, but it's nothing out of the ordinary for him. In 2010, he donated $1 million to a charity in Memphis. The UK Alumni game this past September raised nearly $1 million for various charities.

He gets his players in on the action, too. Knowing he only has a few months with most of his recruits to transform them from high school boys to men who give back to their society, Calipari routinely mandates charity events involving his players.

Talk to anyone from the Lexington area and they'll tell you that he's one of the best things to ever happen to their city—and that he's also a pretty good basketball coach.

Why we hate him: Take your pick, really.

Calipari has had more tournament wins vacated (nine) than most coaches could even dream of winning in the first place. Though he was never officially implicated in the scandals surrounding Marcus Camby at Massachusetts or Derrick Rose at Memphis, he certainly made no qualms about skipping town when the going got rough.

His recruiting tactics—though perfectly legal as far as we know—make a mockery of college basketball. Coaches around the nation have grown to accept the fact that five-star recruits will likely leave after one season, but Calipari has basically built an expressway for high school phenoms who want to go to the NBA.

And then, of course, there was the clip of him from last season complaining about Duke's obsession with drawing charges—for which Mike Krzyzewski offered an incredible rebuttal.

There's just something about Calipari that comes across as conniving, despite all of the charitable things he does for his community.


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