Northwestern has never reached the NCAA tournament. Never. They’ve come close on a few occasions, but the Wildcat faithful have never seen their team’s name show up on television when the brackets are announced. That’s the task that first-year head coach Chris Collins is faced with, to strengthen the program to the point where it can not only be in the conversation for an NCAA tournament bid but ultimately know that they’ll be playing in the Big Dance.
Accomplishing said feat will be difficult this season given the Wildcats’ standing within the Big Ten, but in fifth-year senior Drew Crawford the new head coach has a piece most new hires aren’t fortunate to have at their disposal. And after playing in just ten games last season due to a shoulder injury, Crawford showed no signs of rust in the Wildcats’ 72-55 victory over Eastern Illinois as he accounted for 25 points and 11 rebounds.
Crawford, who was a third-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011-12, gives Northwestern an offensive option who can shoulder much of the scoring load and that was something they sorely lacked last season. But Crawford wasn’t the only Northwestern player to perform well after a long absence from the court Saturday, as JerShon Cobb tallied eight points and a game-high eight assists in his first game action since the 2011-12 season. Cobb missed all of last year for academic reasons, and his return gives the Wildcats another versatile (and experienced) option on the perimeter.
As a team Northwestern assisted on 16 of its 20 made field goals, and a high assist rate will need to be the Wildcats’ calling card if they’re to improve on last season’s 13-19 record. We’ll learn a lot more about Northwestern next week when they visit Stanford, with the Cardinal having some talented options (Dwight Powell, Chasson Randle and Josh Huestis being three) who will prove far more formidable than Eastern Illinois.
Last season such a contest may have been a recipe for disaster, but the return of both Crawford and Cobb will help matters as Collins looks to take the Northwestern program to a level it has yet to reach.