Drew Crawford plays his final game at Welsh-Ryan Arena tonight, where he has been one of the top five Wildcats of the past fifteen years. From his arrival in Evanston, Crawford has been a starter (138 starts in 139 career games played) and a star. He was the first Wildcat to be named B1G Freshman of the Year. He played on arguably the three best NU teams of the past 40 years. Along with Juice Thompson, John Shurna, and Bill Carmody, he elevated NU basketball from the bottom of the conference to an annual NCAA tourney contender. I can’t recall exactly the last time NU played meaningful games in February and March prior to Crawford’s tenure, but it was at least 1999, possibly earlier than that. It’s difficult to overstate the impact Crawford has made on the program. He is undoubtedly a future inductee to the NU sports Hall of Fame.
He demonstrated growth from his freshman to his junior season as a scorer and shooter. Each season he became a more prominent component of the offense, and in his junior year he was an excellent offensive player and a 3rd-team All-B1G selection. Unfortunately, Drew got dealt a lousy hand these past two seasons. Last season should have been his swan song, and he should have been the centerpiece of NU’s first NCAA tournament team. His supporting cast was to be:
- Dave Sobolewski: an experienced, former All-B1G Freshman Team at point guard.
- Reggie Hearn: a tough and intelligent former walk-on guard who was surprisingly good on both ends of the court.
- JerShon Cobb: a smooth and intelligent two guard who showed promise in two injury-plagued seasons.
- Jared Swopshire: a Scout top-100 four-star transfer from Louisville who was a strong rebounder and defender.
- Alex Marcotullio: a long-distance marksman with a deft passing touch and a pesky presence at the top of the 1-3-1.
- Alex Olah: a true freshman center with legit B1G size.
- Then there were Tre Demps, Sanjay Lumpkin, Kale Abrahamson, and Mike Turner to provide additional back-up.
Admittedly, this is not a roster you’d expect to contend for a B1G title, but it had the right mix of experience, intelligence, skill, and toughness to execute an offense that had become highly efficient in the preceding four seasons. With the coaching staff openly embracing a renewed focus on intense defense, there was ample reason to be optimistic.
And then the wheels started to fall off the cart, one by one. JerShon Cobb was suspended by the athletic department for the entire season. Sanjay Lumpkin caught mononucleosis in the pre-season and then suffered a season-ending wrist injury early in the year. Nevertheless, the ‘Cats opened the season 7-2, including a stunning win over Baylor in Waco that followed two very disappointing home losses to Maryland and UIC.
NU posted an average defensive efficiency of 91.8 in its non-conference schedule against teams averaging 175 in the KenPom rankings. (For reference, this year’s squad averaged 96.1 against an average opponent rank of 173). For the first time in years, NU had a defensive pulse to go along with an effective offense. But Crawford was playing hurt, and his performance suffered. Through the early season Reggie Hearn seemed to be NU’s best player. Following a tough home loss to Butler in the tenth game of the season, Crawford had season-ending shoulder surgery.
There were other injuries. Marcotullio battled a bad back all season. Hearn contended with an ankle sprain. Still, the team soldiered on, and after ten conference games sat at 4-6 in B1G (13-10 overall) with at least a shot at the NIT still alive. The 2013 team’s efficiency differential through ten games was better than the 2014 team’s (-0.097 PPP to -0.146). However, the career-ending injury to Jared Swopshire in that 10th conference game proved too much for the ‘Cats to overcome. NU ended the season on a nine-game losing streak. With it came the end of Carmody’s tenure.
New coach Chris Collins insisted his first order of business was convincing Crawford not to bolt for a sure-fire tournament team, and he was successful in that endeavor. The 2014 season has seen an impressive defensive improvement, and Crawford (like many of his teammates) looks to be playing the best defense of his career. And yet the ‘Cats are in danger of closing a second consecutive season on a nine-game losing streak. Crawford is enduring his worst offensive season at NU as Collins has produced the worst B1G offense in over a decade. It’s a shame. As well as the coaches have done in building a solid defense, they have failed miserably to adjust offensively to get the best out of their best players. Many criticize Crawford as inconsistent, and there may be some truth to this (that’s for a later, post-season post), but the entire team has struggled. Only Olah has shown significant offensive improvement, though Demps deserves a mention as well for becoming an almost average offensive player.
Crawford should not be in an NU uniform tonight. He should have gone out last year as a hero. Instead he has, like the fans and other players, suffered through a brutal losing season. He will not be the star of NU’s first NCAA tourney team. He will not make the kind of history he had hoped when he arrived at NU. Despite his great effort and great talent, he has been a victim of horrible luck and a rough transition from one coach to the next. But let’s appreciate him one more time tonight. He really is one of the all-time Wildcat greats.
For reference, here are Crawford's scoring/shooting numbers. All the dark purple in the 2012 season shows just how good Crawford was at his peak.