Drew Crawford ready for star turn

Michael Hlebasko on Drew Crawford's stellar opening night.

It seems unfair to say that a player who is already a two-time All-Big Ten performer needs to step up his game, but such is life for Drew Crawford and the Northwestern Wildcats. Northwestern lacks both depth and experience, so a monster season from Crawford is absolutely necessary if they are going to have any semblance of success. Last night's season opener–albeit against a weak opponent in Eastern Illinois–served as an indication that Crawford is ready to give Northwestern just that.

Coach Chris Collins is on record saying that keeping Crawford on board was his first priority when he accepted the Northwestern job—and for good reason. And although Collins succeeded, I don't think any Northwestern fan could have blamed Drew for using his right to transfer as a graduate and play for a team that was surely tournament-bound.

But Drew chose to stay, and the fans will love him for it. John Shurna may have been the better player, but he never had the same loving relationship with the Welsh-Ryan fans that Juice Thompson had. Juice loved being "the man" at Northwestern and Northwestern loved him right back for it, and Drew could earn that same adulation. When Crawford was introduced before the Eastern Illinois game, I imagine that the raucous reception he received from the surprisingly full student section served to reinforce his decision to stay.

And as the game wore on and EIU made it uncomfortably close at times, Drew was there with a spot-up three or drive to the basket to keep the Panthers at bay. What was remarkable last night wasn't just Crawford's 25 points and 11 rebounds, but his command of the floor and the gym. Crawford was locked in, and it would have been clear from the tip-off even to a completely uninformed viewer that he was the best player on the court. Chris Collins has taken over the program, but this team unquestionably belongs to Drew Crawford.

Drew's best play last night, for me, wasn't one of his eight field goals or eleven rebounds. Around the ten-minute mark of the second half in a ten-point game, the NU offense had stalled a bit when Crawford drove hard baseline, drew two defenders in addition to the one who started on him, and fired a beautiful cross-court pass to Jershon Cobb who nailed an open three.

It was a beautiful piece of improvisation from a player who could just have easily have taken the high degree of difficulty shot at the rim, and given his role on the team was expected to. Drew Crawford is going to have to be many things for Northwestern to be a competitive basketball team this year, but he looks more than up to the task.

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