Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.
Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.
Almost everyone agrees the Big Ten was the best basketball conference in the country last season, littered with some of the nation’s very best players throughout its variously qualified teams. The Big Ten was just as good on a macro team-level – eight of its 12 teams finished in the top 40 of Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings, seven of which received NCAA Tournament bids – as it was individually. Trey Burke won every national player of the year award of note, DeShaun Thomas offered the rare blend of high-usage, high-efficiency scoring, Cody Zeller was a national player of the year candidate veiled by the immense star-turn of teammate Victor Oladipo, and on, and on and, you get the point.
The ugly counterpoint, a byproduct of college hoops’ diffuse one-and-done era, is that many of the stars that lit up the Big Ten last season will move on to the next level this offseason and leave behind a less glamorous crop of potential stars. Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III will be back, and Michigan State returns looking like a bona fide national title contender with major breakout candidate Gary Harris running the point, but the starpower, on balance, is of the merely blasé variety – it has nothing on last season’s group. I’m saying this in May, so my assessment is subject to offseason fluctuation, but even the most optimistic valuation of returning singular talent can’t deny, the group of individual players returning doesn’t hold a candle to 2012-13’s NBA-inclined batch. They just don’t measure up.
This dynamic presents an inviting opportunity for Northwestern’s Drew Crawford. There is a chance (re: this is not a prediction) that the Wildcats’ fifth-year senior could lead the conference in scoring. Astonished? Taken aback? You shouldn’t be. Have a look at the list of last season’s leading scorers and you’ll notice something rather quickly. The top four points-per-game-getters (in order: Thomas, Burke, Brandon Paul and Zeller) have moved on, which leaves – wait for it – Penn State’s D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall as the leading returning scorers in the Big Ten.
Pound home the control + T command on your personal computing device, and do the Google search yourself if you’re not convinced. Facts are facts, and Newbill and Marshall are indeed the best returning scoring talent – according to the crude, and not efficiency-based (and thus not at all equating to actual scoring efficacy) points-per-game metric – left in the Midwest’s hallowed hoops conference. After the Nittany Lions’ duo, it’s Iowa’s Roy Devyn Marble and Minnesota’s Andre Hollins, both of whom will be back next season, but neither of whom are consistent or individually skilled enough to kill this discussion in its tracks.
You’re left with a picture that feels like a barren individual scoring landscape, an exploitable void of ppg prowess, and, more pertinent to this discussion, a golden opportunity for Drew Crawford to finish his career on a personal high note. John Shurna climbed on top two seasons ago at 19.8 points per game, when he used 26.7 percent of available possessions and 30.7 percent of shots, but still allotted enough touches and opportunities for Crawford to finish the season at 16.2 ppg.
This season, Crawford will be Northwestern’s undisputed go-to scorer, and with the possible exception of JerShon Cobb, maybe the only Wildcat with reliable self-sustaining offensive characteristics. Crawford can get his own – from anywhere on the court at anytime he desires. He doesn’t need facilitative assistance or copious screens to manufacture a clean look. Crawford can create, innovate, and get to the tin from a standstill. His skills don’t need further explanation.
There are other players who could surge up the scoring ranks; Robinson III and McGary could blossom in their sophomore seasons, or Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker could take a huge sophomore leap. Crawford has already proven his scoring chops, and this season, the conditions offer a more fortuitious path to scoring supremacy – both internally and otherwise. With most of last season’s individual scoring talents bolting for the NBA, and no competing scoring imperative to share floorspace and shot attempts with (Shurna), Crawford should in the discussion at worst, and a strong candidate until the very last game of the season at best.
Somewere in the middle, maybe a top-five scoring finish, is a safe bet. Crawford can and should meet and exceed that conservative projection. The conditions are ripe for Crawford to conclude his college career with a flourish, and a conference scoring title to boot.