Men’s Basketball: Red-hot Crawford essential to Wildcats’ offensive success

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

Drew Crawford had just played his worst game of the season, scoring only 6 points on 1-8 shooting in a Jan. 15 loss to then-No. 4 Michigan State. It was the latest in a series of sub-standard outings, but everyone was raving anyway.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo heaped praise on the senior forward, who returned to Evanston for a fifth season instead of transferring to a program on sturdier footing. Izzo complimented Crawford’s effort and hustle and also his role in the program’s overall development.

“He could have left,” Izzo said, “but he stayed and he will help this team and this program turn.”

Minutes later, Crawford’s own coach was similarly effusive.

“He’s our leader,” Chris Collins said then. “He’s our guy, and even in a game like this I’ll go with him anytime.”

Three weeks later, Collins’ faith has been rewarded.

Over the five games since the poor performance against the Spartans, Crawford has averaged 20.6 points per game and drastically upped his shooting percentage. The Cats won four of those games, with the senior the team’s leading scorer, or tied for leading scorer, in each.

The highlight was NU’s upset of No. 13 Wisconsin last Wednesday in Madison. Crawford poured in a season-high 30 points on an impressive 10-15 shooting, playing all 40 minutes of the Cats’ 65-56 victory.

For that production, as well as his efficient 17 points in a win over Minnesota, Crawford was named Big Ten Co-Player of the Week for the third time in his career Monday. The next day he was awarded a more prestigious distinction: Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week.

“It’s a great honor,” Crawford said. “I’m definitely happy to win such a distinguished award like that. But at the same time, it’s something I’m thankful for, but it’s more about what we’re doing as a team.”

The Cats enter Saturday’s home game against Nebraska on a bit of an offensive upswing, after months of scoring struggles. The Wisconsin and Minnesota victories were the first games of the conference season in which NU shot more than 40 percent and the first Big Ten contests they made more than a third of their 3-pointers.

Crawford easily leads the Cats with 16.3 points per game (seventh in the Big Ten) and is a close second to team leader sophomore center Alex Olah with a 48.4 percent effective field goal percentage, despite taking a much higher volume of shots.

Crawford also tops NU in rebounds per game (6.8, sixth in the conference) and is third on the squad in assists in a team-best 35.7 minutes per game. Unsurprisingly, he uses 26.1 percent of the team’s possessions, according to

The Cats admit their offense revolves around the senior star. Crawford has been receiving the ball both in the post and on the perimeter, scoring at the basket and 25 feet from it. Sophomore guard Tre Demps says he and his teammates are increasingly adapting to its star forward.

“Everybody is kind of learning how to play off of Drew,” Demps said Tuesday. “Knowing the spots where he likes to get the ball, knowing opportunities how you can find your shot off of his dribble drive.”

NU has struggled with the ball all season, and despite the recent mini-surge is ranked 314th in the country in offensive efficiency according to KenPom and 322nd according to

Crawford’s poor shooting, which climaxed with the Michigan State loss, had essentially neutered the Cats’ attack. Against the Spartans, the team shot 28.3 percent and totaled only 40 points, with no individual player scoring more than 12.

The senior attempts to play down his own importance, suggesting this week he’s just another guy, who has happened to get hot the last couple of games. It’s not true. The Cats will have a tough time winning — even against a lesser team like Nebraska — without Crawford scoring like a star and drawing more raves.

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Twitter: @AlexPutt02