by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
For the first time in four years, Northwestern has cracked the AP Top 25. The Wildcats, after taking care of business against Indiana over the weekend, are 5-0 and beginning to generate national discussion over their impressive track record and positive trajectory. Momentum is building. Excitement is palpable. But we couldn’t pass up a chance to fill you in on some offseason hardwood buzz. With official practice getting underway in less than two weeks, and the season-opener just six weeks after that, I caught up with Drew Crawford, a senior forward who last season averaged 16.1 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, to discuss the 2011 season, the NCAA Tournament and, most importantly, the new-look (and surprisingly frontcourt-heavy) roster. Basketball season is fast approaching; This should pique your interest for the upcoming season.
How much was the goal of making the NCAA Tournament discussed as you guys hovered around the bubble towards the end of the season?
DC: It’s always a goal for us. It’s something we bring up as a team. That’s our goal every year, that’s where we want to be at the end of every year. We talk about it in the beginning and throughout the season. We know each game’s importance to it, so it definitely comes up a lot.
Does Northwestern’s Tournament drought provide any added pressure? Or is it something you take for granted?
DC: We can’t help what’s happened in history, so we’re just trying to focus on what we can do right now in the moment. We just take each game one at a time and don’t worry about the past. We just worry about the game at hand.
Describe you and your teammates’ emotions after upsetting Michigan State last season.
DC: That was a huge win for us. I thought it was so cool we had a great atmosphere there. To win that game really meant a lot for the team and for the school. That was a great experience. Beating a great team like Michigan State who previously had only lost to North Carolina and Duke was a great momentum starter for us.
Addressing some of the more devastating losses Northwestern suffered in Big Ten play as their Tournament hopes faded down the stretch…
Illinois (Jan. 4, 57-56):
DC: That was a real tough one. It was a really low-scoring game. It was a grind-it-out type game. It came down to the end, and we weren’t able to make enough plays.
Purdue (Feb. 12, 87-77):
DC: That was also a real tough loss. Especially when it comes down to one or two plays there at the end. That’s one of the toughest ways to lose, when you can’t close our games. That was definitely deflating.
Michigan (Feb. 21, 67-55 OT), Ohio State (Feb. 29, 75-73):
DC: When you have that goal of making the Tournament, each loss hurts that much more, especially losing close games where you’re fighting, battling towards the end and a bounce doesn’t go our way or we’re not able to make the play we need to finish the game. That’s something we need to improve on.
B1G Tournament, Minnesota (Mar. 8, 75-68 OT):
DC: That was the most disappointing moment of the season. We were so excited, we were ready to play, but then we just came out and played sloppy. It was a poor defensive effort, especially in the first half. We were excited, we knew it was a huge game for us and it could have been that we were a bit too excited. It was just sloppy. We were prepared, having beaten them earlier in the season. We knew what they had. We just came out and didn’t execute well.
How will the loss of John Shurna impact this season, both on and off the court?
DC: It’s tough losing Johnny. But I don’t think it will change what we do too much. We’re doing pretty much the same stuff we did last year. Johnny just happened to be the guy who was knocking down shots because he’s a terrific player. We’re going to stick to the same execution we did last year. We’re just going to have to get guys to step up and make plays. Johnny was an incredible scorer, and yeah, he scored a lot for us. That being said, we have a lot of talented guys this year and a lot of guys who can score the ball. That (scoring) is something we share as a team. The thing about our offense is that it gives a lot of looks to every player on the court. A lot of times everyone is going to touch the ball in a possession. Replacing him is going to be a community effort.
Aside from what he does on the court, he was an unbelievable teammate and we’re going to miss him, as we will all the other seniors, too. We’re moving forward, we have a new team and a bunch of new guys. We’re excited for what we have now.
With so many new frontcourt players – freshmen Alex Olah, Aaron Liberman, and Chier Ajou, Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire, TCU transfer Nikola Cerina (who gains his eligibility this season after sitting out the customary transfer year) and redshirt freshman Mike Turner (who gains his eligibility this season after redshirting last season) – do you expect a greater interior presence within this team on both ends of the floor?
DC: I think our team this year is going to be a lot more physical than it has been in the past. I recognized that towards the end of the summer we had one of our last workouts and we had a three-on-three game that was unbelievably physical. We were competing, guys were battling and that really showed me that the team is going to be pretty physical this year and I expect us to come out and make a statement.
Can you pinpoint some of the new players who you’ve been particularly impressed with during summer workouts?
DC: Definitely Jared (Swopshire). Swop is real tough. He’s one of those guys who can do everything out on the court. He can knock down a shot, he’s got a really nice post game. He can really rebound and score down in the paint and around the basket. He’s very talented and a hard worker. I’ve also been really impressed with Sanjay (Lumpkin). Sanjay is a really talented kid. He has excellent footwork. I think he’s really going to be able to help us. I can go down the list, because pretty much everyone has impressed me a lot. Olah has been great for us, too, he had an excellent summer. He’s done a great job losing weight and getting in shape, so he’s doing really well.
Which newcomer will make the biggest impact this season?
DC: I think Swop will make the biggest impact. Everyone is going to play their part and make their own impact in a different way, but I think Swopshire, having the experience, having played four years of college basketball already, he’s got that experience and I think he’s going to bring a great leadership dynamic to the team and really help us out.
How do you envision Swopshire fitting into the rotation? Will he play as a stretch-four, or spot up on the wing, or some combination of both?
DC: Our offense is pretty symmetrical. He’ll probably be in the same position that I’m playing except on the other side.
Talk about the loss of JerShon Cobb. First, how does that affect the team on the court?
DC: JerShon is such a talented player. He brings a great scoring dynamic to the team and defensively, he’s real cunning and makes a lot of great plays. It’s going to be really tough losing JerShon Cobb, because even though he’s battled injuries throughout his career, whenever he’s on the court, he really brought another dynamic to the team.
On a personal level, how will JerShon’s suspension affect you?
DC: JerShon is such a good kid and such a great teammate. He’s the kind of guy that everyone loves. (Losing JerShon) Is a little bit easier on a personal level because he’s still going to be around the program. We still support him 100 percent. He’s still coming to practice and watching when he can. There’s nothing but love there. He’s behind us and we’re behind him.
Who, if anyone, can atone for that loss? Do you think Reggie Hearn can step in and fill his role?
DC: It’s all about what we do as a team. Everyone is going to share the load there. Reggie is one of the leaders in this team this year. He works incredibly hard in the offseason. I think he’s going to have a great year.
With Tre Demps ready for this season and Dave Sobolewski coming off a nice year, how do you see the backcourt rotation sorting itself out? Do you think both guys will play at the same time?
DC: That depends on what Coach Carmody is seeing in practice. I can tell you that both guys are working really hard and both have improved tremendously over the summer. It’s a good problem to have because both guys are extremely talented. We have a lot of depth at guard with Dave, Tre, Reggie, Alex (Marcotullio), Sanjay. So I’m excited about that.
Most of the early Big Ten predictions have slotted Northwestern to finish ninth or 10th. Is that too high, too low? Where do you fit in the conference pecking order?
DC: We don’t worry about what outsiders think. No one pays attention to what others peg us as. We just try and go out and play our game every night. We can beat anyone in the Big Ten. Every game is going to be tough, especially in such a tough conference. That’s just one thing you have to know: going out each night, it’s going to be a battle. I think we can compete with any team in the conference. We expect to win every night we play.
Which teams do you expect to compete for the Big Ten Championship? Who, in your mind, are the frontrunners?
DC: Indiana is going to be very tough. Ohio State is going to be good. And Michigan is going to be really good. They each have a lot coming back. They’re going to be ranked highest in the top 25, and rightfully so.
On an individual note, what have you done to work on your game this offseason?
DC: It’s been a great offseason for me. I worked really hard, I really felt like I improved. I worked a lot on my ballhandling, and scoring off the dribble and really improving my footwork and inventing different ways to score. I worked with a lot of trainers this summer and with the team as well. Practicing over the summer and working the team really helped. I was able to get a lot done and I’m happy about that.
You mentioned working on creating your own shot and inventing new ways to score. Is that something you will be asked to do in larger doses this season?
DC: Johnny (Shurna) took that load a lot of times last year. I know I’m going to have to pick it up this year. That (scoring off the dribble, creating his own shot) is definitely going to have to be big for us this year. I really want to focus on taking a leadership role this year and whatever else I need to do in order to help the team get better.
What is the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s team?
DC: The biggest difference deals with personnel. We have five freshmen coming in and Jared, who transferred in, and Tre, Niko (Cerina) and Mike, who are redshirts. So that’s nine new guys who will be on the court this year. So from a personal standpoint, it’s going to be a lot different. We have a lot of talent, so I think we’re going to have a lot of different guys that can contribute this year.
What’s the biggest facet of the game Coach Carmody harped on this offseason? Was there one area where he believes you guys need the most improvement?
DC: We’re going to figure out what we need to improve once we start official practice. A lot of the stuff in the summer and stuff right now is about getting the freshmen and the new guys in tune with how our offense works. That was a big thing for us.
How do you think Coach Carmody handled all the criticism after a disappointing end to last season?
DC: Coach Carmody’s system and the way he teaches it is pretty genius. He’s definitely the right coach for us and we do really well under him. Hopefully we’ll be able to go out, play well this year and show how well he’s coached us.
In your final season at NU, what would it mean if you failed to reach the NCAA Tournament? Would you feel like you’re leaving behind unfinished business?
DC: It’d be really disappointing. One of the reasons I came here was to be part of a team that’s getting better every year, that’s continuing to improve. We’ve gotten closer each year to making that next step, and I think we’re on pace to making it this year. It would definitely be disappointing if we couldn’t get there.
Do you guys feel better-equipped to reach that goal this season than you were last season?
DC: Definitely. We have a great team this year: a lot of new guys, a lot of new talent. At the same time, our leadership is going to be great this year. With Reggie, Alex, Swopshire and I as seniors, we know what it takes to make that next step. We’re ready to bring these young guys along and get our team going.