by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
No one ever said replacing Drew Crawford was going to be easy. The senior forward wasn’t just Northwestern’s best player. He was its only threat to create offense off the dribble, its last resort late in the shot clock after so many failed sequences of Princeton backdoor cuts and pin-down screens. If Crawford wasn’t the MVP through the first 10 games of the season, he was no doubt in the thick of the conversation, despite troubling inconsistency that, having revealed the facts, was almost certainly at least partially attributable to an injured shoulder.
Crawford will heal up, regain his All-Conference level form and, presuming a successful NCAA waiver appeal, join the team next season. And Wildcats fans will start to talk about the green shoots of 2013-14, about Crawford and JerShonn Cobb’s return to a lineup strengthened by highly touted freshmen Jaren Sina and Nate Taphorn, about how next year will be “the year” when Northwestern finally makes its NCAA Tournament breakthrough.
In the meantime, Northwestern will trudge along with an undermanned, underequipped, underexperienced roster. In losing Crawford and Cobb, suspended for the entire season after failing to meet academic requirements, the Wildcats are without arguably their two most effective scorers. Northwestern got its first look without either player Monday night, when a six-point survival against 4-7 Texas State did nothing to quell doubts about Northwestern’s ability to recover from the massive roster atrophy. Nor did it inspire confidence – if such confidence even existed in the first place – that the Wildcats could somehow engineer a miraculous Tournament appearance without Cobb and Crawford.
What it did do is prove Northwestern will need to play almost perfect basketball in order to avoid an embarrassing Big Ten season. Unlike earlier losses to Maryland, UIC and Butler, Northwestern did not suffer an uncharacteristically poor shooting night; the Wildcats finished 24-for-55 from the field, including 12-for-27 from three. Make 44 percent of your shots, and beating a team like Texas State should not entail much late-game angst or crunch time drama. The Bobcats hung around, bided their time, exploited the Wildcats’ inexperienced frontcourt and nearly sprung the upset. And it’s not as if Texas State played it’s best game, either – the Bobcats hit just five of 14 three-point attempts and allowed Northwestern to close the game on a 12-0 run while watching its 6-point lead wither away in the waning moments.
The sort of tight and altogether nerve-inducing game we witnessed Monday night would’ve been understandable had Northwestern gone through another shooting slump, or had Texas State come out hitting all its shots, marshaling the anticipation of a high-major road environment and the possibility of a marquee win to stage a one-game tour de force. Texas State played well. It didn’t play well enough as to push Northwestern, Crawford or not, to the absolute brink of devastation. Perhaps this is what we are to expect from the Wildcats without their two best players.
After all, Northwestern needed 18 points from point guard Dave Sobolewski, a 12-point breakout game from backup guard Tre Demps and an emotionally-charged run of momentum to close the game where any number of fortuitous calls and bounces – had they gone in Texas State’s favor – may well have done in Northwestern’s comeback effort.
The toughness Northwestern showed late in the fourth quarter was commendable, even if it didn’t gloss over the disconcerting performance that preceded it. I don’t believe Northwestern’s long-term prospectus will reflect a team that needed some opponent dysfunction, a powerful late-game run and, let’s be honest, a fair bit of luck to scrape by a WAC bottom-feeder. Adjusting to life without Crawford is a gradual process. It would’ve been unfair to expect Northwestern to make all the requisite changes in one 40-minute sample.
Friday’s visit from Stanford, Northwestern’s last chance to make a positive statement in the nonconference season, will provide a litmus test for this team’s ability to move past the Crawford injury and challenge a quality opponent. If the Wildcats can get by Stanford, then the season may turn out more interesting than Friday’s depressing news and Monday night’s even more discouraging performance suggested.