For Crawford, it’s worth the wait

MILWAUKEE – Jordan Crawford remembers exactly where he was last March while his Xavier teammates were making a run to the Sweet 16.

Stuck in Cincinnati with fellow redshirt Mark Lyons, longing for the chance to perform on college basketball’s biggest stage, Crawford sought refuge in an empty gym. He hoisted 3-pointers by the hundreds, wishing for an opportunity to do what he does best – play.

Amid the frustration and anxiety came a lesson, one that Crawford said he won’t forget.

Crawford, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, soared to new heights this season as he was named the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year.
(Frank Victores/US PRESSWIRE)

“I learned not to take the game for granted and to love every minute of it,” Crawford said. “I’ve come a long way since then and I’m thankful for it.”

The perspective has paid dividends for Crawford, the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. He leads the sixth-seeded Musketeers against 11th-seeded Minnesota on Friday in a West Regional first-round game at the Bradley Center.

Crawford, a 6-foot-4 sophomore from Detroit, has emerged as a better player and an offensive force. His quick first step and ability to create his shots make him tough to defend. He scored at least 20 points 17 times this season. His tenacity attacking the basket helped Xavier forge a 24-8 record and an A-10 regular-season co-championship

Really, the only entity capable of stopping him so far has been the NCAA, which forced him to sit out for a season when he transferred from Indiana in the wake of the Kelvin Sampson phone scandal.

Crawford didn’t have anything to do with the violations. But like so many others, he evacuated Bloomington after Sampson burned the program to the ground.

He’s moved on and developed a flair for hitting clutch shots that sap opponents’ resolve. When the shot clock winds down and other guys might come unglued, Crawford is the embodiment of cool. He is shooting 39 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

“There’s no question he’s our best player,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “He has the ability to take over a game.”

Minnesota coach Tubby Smith is more than familiar with Crawford, whose older brother, Joe, played for Smith at Kentucky. As a freshman at Indiana, Crawford torched the Gophers for 14 first-half points in Minneapolis. He finished with 16 points, six rebounds and a key block.

“We’ve seen what Jordan can do first-hand,” Smith said. “He really has the talent to make plays, make big shots.”

Minnesota knows it will be in for a long day trying to check Crawford, who averages 19.7 points. It has had trouble guarding long, athletic players, as evidenced by the 31 points Ohio State’s Evan Turner laid on the Gophers last week in the Big Ten tournament title game. Smith will assign the task of slowing Crawford to Damian Johnson, perhaps with some help from Lawrence Westbrook.

Johnson recalls Crawford from his Big Ten days and likened his skills to those of Michigan State All-America guard Kalin Lucas, another Motor City product. Lucas is good. Crawford is better.

“He has the ball in his hands a lot,” Johnson said. “He knows when to shoot. He takes advantage of any mistake you make on defense. Against a player like that, you just have to remain fundamentally sound and stay in your stance. You can’t let up.”

Crawford’s return to the Big Dance is at last imminent. It seems like an eternity since he played for the Hoosiers in a 2008 NCAA first-round loss to Arkansas.

Before the game tips at 12:25 p.m. Eastern, he’ll think back to March 2009 and those agonizing days in Cincy, chucking up 3-pointers in a vacant gym. He’ll think about a year of practices with no games, no travel, no recognition. He’ll think about how he learned to fit in with the Musketeers.

“I gained a lot from sitting out last year,” Crawford said. “The game slowed down a little. I think I just took advantage of it, and my teammates did a good job of bringing me into the system and allowing me to play my game.”

That’s really all he ever wanted.

Gerry Ahern is the Managing Editor/Colleges for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Gerry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Mar 18, 2010