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What Drew Crawford's Return Means For Northwestern In 2013-14

Every Northwestern men’s basketball coach shares the same burden. Get to the NCAA Tournament – through wind and rain, fire and earth, daunting Big Ten road trips and nonconference games. However it happens, just get there. That logic was no doubt a major factor in how former coach Bill Carmody was evaluated after 13 seasons on the job, and the same standard holds with new boss Chris Collins. With Northwestern basketball, it’s about getting to the Big Dance. Everything else is peripheral.

If or when Collins gets the Wildcats over the hump is difficult to say. Here’s what isn’t: Northwestern has a better chance of making the NCAAs next season with Drew Crawford than without him (it also has a better chance of making the NCAA Tournament with Drew Crawford than Jaren Sina, but that’s another discussion for another column for another day). Carmody’s dismissal after the Big Ten Tournament caused Crawford to reassess his options, and despite reportedly receiving interest from multiple high major programs, his final year of eligibility is no longer in doubt. Crawford will play out his career in purple.

This is welcome news for the Wildcats and their Tournament fortunes, which is pretty much what you’d say about any team that just got word of its most dynamic scorer returning for his senior season. But the satisfaction quickly turns back to the looming specter of NCAA Tournament potential: does Crawford make the Wildcats an Tournament team?

There is no easy way to answer this question. In fact, at this stage of the offseason, with the spring signing period not officially in the books, and NBA draft considerations still up in the air for various players at various schools, teams’ fundamental personnel compositions can change, win projections will shift, and what one team looks like today could turn into something completely different by the time we begin to earnestly dive into preseason hoops coverage later this summer. To paint a complete picture of NCAA Tournament probability, the surroundings – other teams and leagues, relative RPI standings, how nonconference strength of schedules stack up against other bubble teams – help create the threshold for inclusion. Their constitution of the NCAA Tournament portal can be just as telling as what any individual team does to chart its own course for Big Dance inclusion.

Which is why making any definitive statements about Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament chances on Saturday April 20 is utterly insane and, frankly, anything but informed and reasoned basketball analysis. It is short-sighted and dismissive of a host of completely uncontrollable and unpredictable elements.

I don’t know if Northwestern can make the NCAA Tournament next season, Crawford or not, but we do know what Crawford means to the Wildcats’ appearance on the court, and last season’s prolonged absence helps illustrate exactly what he brings to the table. In 10 games in 2012-13, as Crawford learned to function as the Wildcats’ primary scoring option for the first time in his college career – after John Shurna, Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer, graduated following the 2011-12 season – he posted a 98.5 offensive rating on 25.2 percent usage. He was less efficient than the previous year, when he took fewer shots and used fewer possessions while being more economical with his point-production.

To phrase it more qualitatively, Crawford made more out of a smaller portion of his team’s shot attempts. That alone doesn’t prove Crawford will be a less efficient player if tasked with a larger share of the scoring workload – which is, presumably, much the same responsibility he will assume this season. Because for all 10 games he did play last year, none of them were played at 100 percent health, and it’s simply impossible to disentangle the limiting effects a painful shoulder injury can have on a dynamic wing scorer and what that might say about his ability to score effectively and efficiently.

Injury concerns should not be an issue this season, but just as we suggested Crawford’s curtailed 2012-13 campaign can’t be judged without acknowledging the potential hindrance of nagging shoulder pain, we likewise can’t assume a prospectively injury-free Crawford will return to the good old days of 111.0 offensive rating and 56.0 true shooting percentage, the 2011-12 Crawford that served as a fantastic secondary option to Shurna’s shot creation.

Quibbling with numerical projections and injury variables makes complete sense when trying to gauge Crawford’s impact this season, but the web of influence his individual talents cast over his teammates is just as important. We can speak generally, and less quantitatively, about how Crawford elevates the Wildcats, but my best abbreviated synopsis goes a little something like this: Crawford is an explosive wing scorer with more individual creative capacity and off-the-bounce scoring potential than anyone currently on Northwestern’s roster. Not only can he manufacture shots himself, he opens up countless spot-up opportunities for open shooters by forcing defenses to collapse on drives and respect his capacity for perimeter slashing.

That is what the Wildcats welcome back to their comparatively deep (last season’s group withered away to a skeleton of its November self by the end of the season) for 2013. On the court, Crawford makes Northwestern a better team. Off it, he is a veteran presence that can help reverse bad shooting nights and mid-conference season losing streaks and whatever other hurdles may present themselves over the course of Crawford’s final season. Northwestern has its best scorer and leader back for his final year of college basketball.

In 2013-14, that means an easier first-year transition for Collins, a more optimistic outlook in what’s shaping up to be another rugged Big Ten, a upwardly-revised win-loss estimation, and a more promising season overall than one without Crawford ever could have been, even if it doesn’t ensure an NCAA Tournament birth.