The loss of Drew Crawford too much for Northwestern

By: Jack Wascher

Drew Crawford was the main reason Northwestern held NCAA hopes before the season began. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Drew Crawford was the main reason Northwestern held NCAA hopes before the season began. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The Northwestern Wildcats are the only team in a major conference to have never made it to the NCAA tournament. Any thought of making their first appearance this year has gone by the wayside as Drew Crawford, their leading returning scorer from last year, was lost for the season with a torn labrum in his shoulder.

Now, Northwestern dealt with something similar to this when Kevin Coble, a sharp shooting swingman for the ‘Cats, broke his ankle right before the 2009 regular season. The Wildcats ended up making the NIT, and were on the brink of making the NCAA tournament. However, the depth of the Big Ten this year makes it extremely difficult for the ‘Cats to even think of the NCAA tournament.

This is not to say that Northwestern has a 0% chance of crashing the Big Dance, but the loss of Crawford definitely hurts their chances significantly. First off, who does Northwestern turn to when the game is on the line? Last year, it was John Shurna, couple years before that it was Craig Moore, and of course, Coble three years ago.

Is the answer Jared Swoopshire? Reggie Hearn? Dave Sabolewski? While these are all good players, they do not have the offensive playmaking ability that Drew Crawford brought to the table night in and night out. Watching a recent game against Texas State, who is clearly an inferior team to Northwestern, there seemed to be no sense of intensity from the ‘Cats to pull away. It ultimately took an 11-0 run at the end of the game in order for the Wildcats to win.

The talent of the Big Ten this year would have made the Northwestern’s quest for the NCAA difficult to begin with even with a healthy Crawford. Without him, it looks like it could be another season where the ‘Cats not only come up short, but don’t really make it competitive. The depth of the Big Ten includes top 25 teams such as Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan State. Playing these teams on a regular basis is difficult enough, and even more so when you’re missing a key member of your team.

While Crawford brought that playmaking ability on the offensive end, his physicality on the defensive end makes his lost even more significant. Northwestern struggles year in and year out to keep up with the physicality of the Big Ten, ranking near the bottom in rebounding. Even though Crawford is only 6’5, his mere presence on the court affects the way players attack the basket.

His shot blocking ability to go along with his long wingspan made him one of the top defenders not only for Northwestern, but also around the Big Ten. Bringing in Jared Swoopshire definitely helped bring the physicality of Northwestern’s defense up, but now they have to rely on the soft presence of 7’0 freshman center Alex Olah to hold down the interior.

In the past, Northwestern has played many down to the wire games in the big ten only to come up short because of the lack of being clutch, and also the ability to handle the ball with the game on the line. This is not to say Crawford had spectacular ball-handling skills, but the fact of the matter is he had the ability to take the ball to the rim at the end of the game and be able to finish in traffic.

Against Baylor, Northwestern opened up an 18 point lead in the second half only to see it dwindle to as low as three points because of Baylor’s relentless pressure on the basketball. Crawford was able to make plays down the stretch that secured the Wildcats upset victory in Waco, which was looking as a potential signature victory to make their case towards the NCAA committee.

Bill Carmody knows his team is always going to be labeled with that underdog role, but how can he make his team competitive in the deepest conference. Well without Crawford, the Cats can forget about playing mostly man-to-man defense and are going to have to rely on their 1-3-1 defense to force turnovers. Big Ten teams have been able to shoot Northwestern out of this defense before, but the reality is that this defense gives the Wildcats their best chance at victory. Also Reggie Hearn, the former walk-on, has to increase his role even more to fill the void of Drew Crawford, especially on the offensive end being more of a threat.

Finally, Dave Sabolewski has to continue to get better as a point guard especially ball handling wise. He’s going to be going up against guards such as Jordan Hulls, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Aaron Craft, Brandon Paul, etc. Sabolewski needs to show that he belongs in the Big Ten.

The saying, “Wait till next year,” is thrown around quite a bit around the city of Chicago, and it might well be one of those years again for the Northwestern Wildcats.



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