Drew Crawford timed it to perfection. He took a big step with his left foot, an even bigger one with his right, and elevated.
With one emphatic block Saturday night, Crawford announced his return to action with authority.
It had been a long time since the fifth-year senior took the court in a competitive game — shoulder surgery last December prematurely ended his season. After redshirting, Crawford considered leaving NU for his final year of eligibility, but opted to stay. Now, after his first game back, he’s relishing the feeling.
“It’s the best feeling in the world, to be back on the court,” Crawford said after Saturday’s 72-55 victory over Eastern Illinois. “Basketball is the game I love, and I love playing with my teammates and my coaches. Having to sit out most of a season and not being able to play at all is one of the toughest things I’ve gone through, so to get back out there is a great feeling.”
Merely getting back out there must have felt like a victory in its own right for the 6-foot-5 forward. But that wasn’t enough; Crawford felt the need to return with some style, and he did exactly that, finishing with 25 points, 11 rebounds, and that one assertive block.
Crawford was Northwestern’s best player on both ends of the floor. “I thought Drew played like a fifth-year, All-Big Ten player tonight. He kept our team calm the whole game, even when we were going through some struggles,” said Coach Chris Collins following the win. “Certainly he’s our best player and our leader, and I was really proud of him.”
On a team that may struggle for consistency, and one that lacks a multiplicity of options on the offensive end, the value of a having a catalyst cannot be understated. On Saturday, that’s the role Crawford played, and the Wildcats may look to him frequently for that same spark that he provided against EIU.
“[Crawford’s aggressiveness] gets everyone going,” said teammate Sanjay Lumpkin after the game. “You see him doing that, and everyone just feeds off of the energy that he’s bringing, and everyone just tries to keep it going.”
“He’s our leader,” Lumpkin said. “Everyday he brings it to practice. He brings that energy every day. He’s a great leader, and he showed it tonight, not only by scoring, but he kept everyone composed, and that’s what a fifth year senior does.”
On Wednesday, in an exhibition game against Lewis, Crawford wasn’t able to spur on his teammates with his play on the offensive end. But Saturday, he found his rhythm early on. It all started with the block, and after that, his game was nearly flawless. He found success penetrating off the dribble, and found his stroke from beyond the arc.
One thing that became evident is that Crawford looks right at home in the offense that Collins has brought to Northwestern. “I think I’m a pretty versatile player. I think I’m able to play in different systems, but I think Coach Collins’ system, what he’s come and implemented, definitely suits my game.”
Collins himself echoed that sentiment, and reiterated the importance of Crawford to his offense. “He knows that I have his back. He’s our guy. If he has a shot, we all expect him to take it, and it doesn’t matter if he’s made his first five or he’s missed his first five, I want him to take his sixth one as if he hasn’t missed any."
In his first game back though, Crawford didn’t miss many. It was an excellent night for a player who had been itching to get back to the game he loves for so long. For the team as a whole, it’s now time to look ahead to Stanford next Thursday. But for Crawford, a player beloved by fans for his commitment to the program, it was a night to cherish, and a reward for every ounce of effort that went into making this return possible.