Michigan's Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., are tough, Paul says, but it's Indiana's Victor Oladipo and Ohio State Buckeyes junior guard Aaron Craft that are the toughest to deal with. Especially Craft, who ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said Saturday would get his vote for national Defensive Player of the Year.
"Him and Oladipo are two guys that push me to be a better player every time I play against them," Paul said.
Paul's words speak to a competitiveness, an elevated state of will when players who respect each other square off.
According to Illinois head coach John Groce, it's Craft's strong-willed mindset that makes him so valuable to Ohio State, who can finish in a tie for the regular season Big Ten title with a win against the Illini and an Indiana loss at Michigan Sunday.
"Obviously he's a terrific player, but again, I said this same thing about Trey Burke when we played Michigan, the thing I admire the most about Craft is his competitive toughness," Groce said. "I think he's really, really tough mentally, physically -- he brings that element to their team. That's something that's more important than how good he is, in my opinion."
With Craft's adversaries clear on the point that his intangibles are elite, his on the court measurable skills are pretty good, too. Averaging nearly 10 points and over four assists a game, Craft is steadily climbing up Ohio State's all-time ranks in numerous categories. He's taken part in 87 career victories and is the school leader in steals (228) and is also No. 3 in career assists (486).
Most known for stopping opponents and creating for teammates, Craft's offensive game has progressed over the course of the season. In Ohio State's last game, an upset Tuesday at Indiana , he had 15 points on 7 of 10 shooting, evidencing his ability to carry the scoring load if the need arises.
In another nod to the respect opposing players hold for him, according to Illini senior D.J. Richardson, a matchup with Craft is, "fun,' and something to look forward to.
"He's a good guy, a good kid off the court," Richardson said. "He's competitive, you know, he loves to win. One of the best leaders on the court, on and off, vocal and non-verbally."
Richardson and Buckeyes guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr., are good friends off the court. The two constantly have conversations about basketball and the Big Ten in general.
"He tells me a lot about Craft, told me he was a good guy and a good leader," Richardson said.
Richardson could be matched up with Craft quite a bit Sunday, when Illinois and Ohio State meet in the final regular season game for each school.
"You have to be ball strong at all times with him," Richardson said. "You have to be aggressive with the ball. He's a real good on-the-ball defender and you have to stay aggressive."
Paul and Tracy Abrams will most likely spend time dealing with Craft, too. While Paul relishes the chance to go against Craft, Abrams says the key for him personally is to avoid getting caught up in who is guarding who.
"He's definitely a tough defender. You just got to be comfortable with the offense and go with it," Abrams said. "I don't really change my preparation. I just play my game and try to play relaxed."
Sunday is Senior Day at Ohio State, but it's the junior Craft that most people point to as the leader of the Buckeyes. Carrying a 3.92 grade-point average, his mix of on and off the court leadership and competitiveness has combined to provide for the ultimate sign of respect -- compliments spoken from across enemy lines.
"He's great at running their team. He can handle it, pass it, the other night he scored it for them," Groce said. "Those things are certainly great attributes, but I think at the end of the day his competitive toughness to me is what even stands above those things."