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Opponent Profile: Texas State

By Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Of all the on-court losses Northwestern endured this season, none will have a bigger impact than Friday’s off-court news of senior forward Drew Crawford’s season-ending shoulder surgery. Crawford’s inconsistency, along with that of Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire, was a point of concern for coach Bill Carmody in recent losses. How much of Crawford’s scoring decline and general struggles were affected by his shoulder, we may never know. What we do know is that Crawford is likely to be granted a medical hardship waiver that will allow him to play next season, the expected point of return for JerShonn Cobb, who is sitting out 2011-12 after failing to qualify academically.

With Crawford and Cobb returning, and another year of collective development for Northwestern’s young roster, the “next year” refrain will be invoked as a common crutch to ease this season’s expected scoring and defensive doldrums. The bottom line is, Crawford and Cobb are two of Northwestern’s three best players. Making the NCAA Tournament with them in the lineup was an uphill climb already. Without them, it will require massive upticks in performance from across the roster. It can be achieved, sure, but Crawford’s injury doesn’t make the job any easier

Our first look at the Wildcats depleted roster will come tonight, when Northwestern takes on Texas State. Before we get into breaking down the Bobcats, there’s one thing you should know: this team thrives on up-tempo basketball, getting out on the break and finishing with a full head of steam. They average 75.5 possessions per game, according to, which ranks second nationally. It will be up to the Wildcats to dictate the flow of play, and take the Bobcats out of their high-flying comfort zone.

Coach: Doug Davalos
Seventh Season
Conference: Western Athletic Conference
Preseason Media Poll Projection: 10th
Season Profile
Record: 4-6
Best win: TX Pan-American
Worst Loss: at Loyola Marymount

Three Players To Watch

Joel Wright (forward, junior)

One month ago, Texas State nearly knocked off in-state foe SMU, suddenly resurgent and playing excellent basketball under new coach Larry Brown. Wright had 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting and finished a perfect 8-for-8 from the line. His scoring has since leveled off, but Wright remains the Bobcats’ most effective source of interior scoring. In fact, he’s involved in a larger percentage of Texas State’s offensive sets than any player on any team – Wright’s 38.9 usage rate ranks first in the nation, and he’s taking 33.8 of available shots (18th). In sum, foreign and unknown as Texas State may be, there are two things you most definitely do know about Doug Davalos’ team: 1) The Bobcats will push the pace and 2) Joel Wright is going to get his touches and shots. Mark it down.

Matt Staff (forward, senior)

One of the biggest reasons for Wright’s early success is the efficient low-post work Staff, a 6-10, 235-pound bruising forward, has provided. In Saturday’s road loss at Texas – which ranks in the top-25 nationally in every defensive category of note, including first overall in effective field goal percentage defense (36.1) – Staff scored a team-high 15 points. One game samples aren’t sound judgments for deep statistical insight, but netting 15 points against the Longhorns’ frontline is nothing to overlook. Whatever your comfort level with statistical projections, it’s safe to assume that, within the context of the early part of the 2012-13 season, scoring against Texas’ frontcourt is more difficult than scoring against Northwestern’s. In other words, Staff proved he can get his fill against an elite defense, so he should have a less difficult time against the Wildcats.

Vonn Jones (point guard, senior) 

The bulk of Texas State’s scoring comes from frontcourt players like Wright, Staff and junior Reid Koenen. Jones is averaging 8.2 ppg this season, but his primary responsibility lies in controlling the pace, distributing and finding open looks for the Bobcats’ low-post threats. Jones’ has been an efficient distributor thus far, ranking in the top-100 nationwide with a 31.6 assist rate, but his creative aptitude comes at a cost – Jones turns it over on 22.4 percent of possessions. Some of that can be attributed to the Bobcats’ pace – when you run as much as Texas State, turnovers and sloppy play are unavoidable – but there’s no question Jones can be a bit careless with the ball at times. All told, he’s an effective floor leader with an underrated ability to dart in the lane and finish in traffic, but his main focus, as it should be, is feeding the low-post.

Key Matchup: Alex Olah and Mike Turner vs. Joel Wright and Matt Staff

The loss of Crawford limits Northwestern’s ability to tinker with smaller lineups to match different schematic variants. In this game, it lineup flexibility may not present a huge obstacle, because the Wildcats’ defensive priorities will hinge almost entirely on stopping Texas State’s frontcourt. That means Turner and Olah will play an important role in taking away what the Bobcats do best: feed Staff and Wright and let them go to work in the paint. Olah and Turner are still rounding into form on both ends of the floor, and both – Turner in particular – have found themselves overwhelmed by bigger, stronger, savvier frontcourt opponents; Maryland’s Alex Len, UIC’s Josh Crittle and Butler’s Andrew Smith are the most obvious examples. If Olah and Turner can take away Staff and Wright, the Bobcats will have to shift to a more perimeter-dominated offensive focus, which runs counter to their scoring strengths. The Bobcats’ frontcourt isn’t nearly as athletic or skilled as the ones Northwestern will see once Big Ten play opens, but it’s a nice test for the young duo as they look to rebound from a disappointing showing (especially in the second half while trying to contain Smith) against Butler.