Postcard: With talented nucleus, Northwestern longs for first dance

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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Drew Crawford was born 10 minutes from Northwestern, where he's now a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard. He lived the first three years of his life in Evanston, then moved to nearby Naperville, where he grew up paying little attention to college basketball. He's an NBA kid, and this is understandable -- his father, Danny, started his 26th season of refereeing in the league by working the much-anticipated Heat-Celtics opener on Tuesday. Drew is nostalgic about the early, up-close access he had to the pros, and he emerged from the Wildcats' locker room for an interview late last week wearing a vintage "NBA on NBC" hat.

"It's from 1995," he said, taking it off and showing the yellowed tag for authenticity. "My dad had it in the basement."

Drew was five years old that season, getting his first (cognizant) exposure to the Jordan-Pippen Bulls, whom he'd watch when Danny worked games in Chicago. Jordan had just returned from baseball that March to set about reviving his dynasty, and it was probably best that Drew was oblivious about Northwestern, which was hitting rock bottom: a 5-22 season that would later be marred even further by a point-shaving scandal.

His first exposure to the Wildcats came years later, when former player Tavaras Hardy began coaching Crawford's grade-school AAU team, the Illinois Defenders, then recruited him after taking a job as an NU assistant. The Wildcats had yet to establish any kind of legacy under coach Bill Carmody, but Crawford was sold on the fact that "they were a program on the uprise." He passed on offers from Oklahoma State and Wake Forest, he said, "because I wanted to come to a school where I'd be able to contribute right away."

He wasn't a heralded Big Ten recruit -- there was virtually no buzz about him entering the '09-10 season, when he jumped into NU's starting lineup at small forward -- but he scored 35 on North Carolina A&T in December, 25 (with eight rebounds) at Michigan in January, 18 (with nine rebounds) against Minnesota in February, and was a surprise winner of the league's Freshman of the Year award. Big things are expected of him as a sophomore after averaging 10.0 points and 4.3 boards in Year 1. His ball handling has improved enough to play multiple guard spots, and he was a double-figure scorer in each of NU's four Italian exhibitions in September. I asked him what he thought would come next.

"What's next," he said, "is the tournament."

The NCAA tournament. The potential end of the 71-year drought. Northwestern hosted the first Final Four, in 1939, but it's the only major-conference team that's never even made the dance. The Wildcats are constantly reminded of this. They're tired of hearing about it, but they're relevant, in '10-11, because of it -- because this may finally be The Season. Carmody is in his 10th campaign, coming off a school-record 20-win, NIT season, and he says, "This is a hungry team, a team that wants to accomplish something. I can feel it, I can see it, I can sense it."

Carmody won't say it's his best team at NU, but it is. He finally has an experienced nucleus of quality, local players, starting with senior Michael "Juice" Thompson, his ironman (37.7 minutes, 14.4 points per game) point guard; Crawford, who was raised in a basketball family; and junior John Shurna, a late-blooming outsider who didn't even play AAU until after his junior year, instead spending his summers caddying, lifeguarding and doing Hurricane Katrina relief through church missions. Elite recruiting camps, he said, "were just things that I read about, as a fan." He grew into a 6-8 forward who seemingly came out of nowhere to average 18.2 points (on 35.5 percent three-point shooting) as a sophomore and earn All-Big Ten honors.

Crawford may be able to reach that All-Big Ten level this season. Carmody would like him to progress in a few areas. The coach thinks that Crawford is too often a robotic perfectionist, and wants to loosen up his game. "I wish Drew were a good dancer," Carmody said. "He wants to do things with just the right form, and sometimes it's better to say, 'The hell with the form -- just go and score.' "

He'd like Crawford to shoot more frequently, even if it's early in the shot clock. When he was in high school, Carmody didn't immediately offer him a scholarship after his first campus visit; the coach instead told him, "You're too giving. You've gotta be greedier and take shots."

"Now," Carmody said, "he's becoming greedier, and I like it."

Now, they're counting on Crawford, in part, to help end the tourney drought. He suffered through back spasms late in his freshman season, an injury that limited his minutes and coincided with NU falling out of contention for an NCAA bid after a 17-8 start (they finished 20-14, just 2-3 Big Ten victories short of a bid). The biggest national news out of Evanston this offseason was that Kevin Coble, NU's leading scorer from '08-09 who missed last season with a foot injury, had bafflingly decided to walk away from the team; some pundits wondered if that would crush the 'Cats' NCAA hopes. But they've already proven they can win without Coble. What they never were able to prove is that they could win without Crawford at 100 percent. "We've got to keep that guy healthy," Carmody said. "He's really important."

1. A revelation from the Wildcats' Italian tour, per Carmody: "Almost all we played in Italy was man-to-man. We only played four possessions of 1-3-1 -- that's it."

This is interesting because NU has almost exclusively been a 1-3-1 zone team of late. Carmody views the 1-3-1 as an "equalizer" against some opponents' superior speed, and he's not planning on shelving it; he just feels that his team is finally experienced and athletic enough to occasionally play a switching man-to-man. The question: Will it help them improve on a defense that ranked 169th in efficiency?

2. Carmody's best line from Friday's practice came after Luka Mirkovic -- a junior center who seems especially susceptible to the forces of gravity -- had a forceful slam, drawing shouts from his teammates. Northwestern's coach turned to a few onlookers on the sideline and said, "We're happy when a 6-11 guy dunks the ball."

3. The amount of practice time devoted to three-point shooting varies widely from campus to campus, but at NU -- where 48.8 percent of shot attempts last season were treys, the second-highest rate in the nation* -- it's a central part of workouts. They have multiple, four-minute segments in which the entire team, big men included, receives in-rhythm passes and launches shots from the top of the key and the corner. (NU's practice is also the only one I've seen so far in which hook-shot mechanics were discussed; after Shurna missed a hook in the lane, assistant Mitch Henderson took a moment to demonstrate proper knee-lift and arm extension.)

* The only team to shoot more threes than NU was Samford. It took 51.1 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc, and finished 11-20.

4. The Wildcats' Midnight Madness combo event -- a combination Snoop Dog/Kid Cudi concert and hoops exhibition, albeit at different venues -- was impressive, considering this is the same program that was widely mocked for its whiteness just four years ago (Deadspin headline: "You need sunglasses to watch this team play"). Snoop gave NU much-needed cred by wearing one of its jerseys during his encore ... although no one was exactly sure why he wore 54, the number of Kyle Rowley, a center who recently transferred to St. Mary's.

5. I worry about Northwestern's nonconference schedule, which includes just one NCAA tournament team from last season -- and that team is ACC/Big Ten Challenge foe Georgia Tech, which is highly unlikely to make the dance this year after losing Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal. The 'Cats were rumored to be in talks with Duke for a marquee nonconference series, but that deal never materialized, and they failed to lure anyone bigger than Creighton to Welsh-Ryan Arena. They really have to hope that the Bluejays are a surprise winner of the Missouri Valley, and that potential Madison Square Garden opponent St. John's fulfills Rick Pitino's prophecy and contends in the Big East. Otherwise, NU will be severely lacking in the Quality Win department.

6. No one at Northwestern is eager to talk about the Mystery of Kevin Coble, who walked away from the team under strange -- and yet to be fully explained -- circumstances. One current player called it "shocking" news when it happened, because they'd seen Coble on the court and expected him to be on the roster in '10-11. All Carmody would say was: "[Coble] came into my office, and said he wasn't going to play. So I said, 'OK.' What was I supposed to do?"

The situation, as far as I understand it from various sources, is that there was a difference of opinion between Coble and the staff about the necessity of him going on the Italian exhibition tour. NU's doctors had fully cleared him to play after foot surgery, and the coaches wanted him to practice and play in Italy. That apparently was not Coble's preferred plan of action, and he later quit. He certainly could've helped the 'Cats reach the NCAAs, but the team seems to have moved on from his departure, and Shurna has filled much of Coble's old role.

Heart and soul: Thompson. He, Michigan State's Kalin Lucas and Penn State's Talor Battle are the most clearly defined team leaders in the Big Ten. In Thompson's case, he's the only true point guard in NU's rotation, he was on the floor 93.2 percent of the time last season -- the fifth-highest PT rate in the country -- and he knew when to pick his spots in the 'Cats' offense, hitting 41.1 percent of his threes. "I think Juice is extremely underrated [nationally]," Shurna said. "We run such a complex offense, and he's the one calling all the plays, and putting everyone in position to score."

(Juice is also the only one who was willing to shave a Wildcat logo and the words "Wildcats" and "2010" into his head for Midnight Madness. He even leads with his hair.)

Most improved: Shurna. From what I saw in practice, Shurna is a more confident and fluid scorer around the rim, with the ability to take contact and finish with either hand. The time he's spent with USA Basketball teams the past two offseasons has helped elevate his game. He didn't overwhelm NBA scouts as a member of the college select team in Las Vegas, but he clearly benefitted from exposure to players who'll make Big Ten defenders seem easy by comparison. I asked him who he matched up against in the Team USA scrimmages, and it was hard for him to keep a straight face as he listed them: "Lamar Odom. Kevin Durant. Kevin Love. Jeff Green." Shurna wasn't lying about it -- he was just aware of the improbability that someone like him, who was unknown as of a few years ago, would be on the same court with guys like that.

Glue guy: Jeff Ryan, the fifth-year senior who's still on the road back from an ACL injury he suffered in the first half of the first game of last season -- "I'm probably between 70-80 percent, basketball-wise," he said -- could be a valuable role player off the bench. He's an oversized (6-6) guard who can relieve Thompson at the point, Cobb at the two or Crawford at the three. "We need guys who can step in and make plays when [the starting guards] need a blow," Ryan said. "It's a long season, and they can't be playing 37, 38 minutes a game."

X-factor: Two options here ... Jershon Cobb, the most highly touted freshman (a four-star rating from Rivals) to arrive at NU in the Carmody era, gives the offense a kind of 6-5 slasher that it didn't previously possess. He picked up an impressive amount of the 'Cats' offense during the 10 practices that preceded the Italian tour, and could be ready to start from Day 1, upping the level of athleticism that Carmody's able to put on the floor.

Carmody also thinks sophomore Alex Marcotullio, a 36.9 percent long-range shooter in limited action last season, could make an impact as a scorer and a "glue" guard after a summer spent playing for Great Britain's U20 entry in the European Championships. "I like Marcotullio a lot," Carmody said. "I call him 'Red' -- I'm not sure if he has red hair, but he's just got a little zest for the game, and he's a smart player, and he's tougher than those arms would indicate."

(That, by the way, was the best "complimentary" quote I've heard all preseason.)

Bottom line: Defense will make or break this team. The 'Cats are already among the offensive elites -- they ranked 33rd nationally in efficiency in '09-10 -- and are only likely to get better as Shurna and Crawford develop. But NU can't afford to rank 169th in defense for a second straight season. The switching man-to-man will have to be an effective second look against the select Big Ten teams (like Penn State) that carve up the 1-3-1. There's very little room for error in the nonconference season, with a schedule that doesn't include a surefire tourney team; games like Georgia Tech, Creighton and (most likely) St. John's are must-wins heading into a brutal conference slate. With enough defensive improvement, the 'Cats should be able to finish .500 in the Big Ten and in the NCAA bubble. I suspect that one of the selection committee's toughest, final decisions that Sunday will be whether or not to end the longest major-conference tourney drought.