Jamal Crook’s long career coming to an end

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers guard Jamal Crook (14) stares at his opponents after a play during the WKU vs ULM game at Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky.

Brad Stephens

It wasn’t until Monday that Jamal Crook began to realize his WKU basketball career is almost finished.

The senior point guard was driving when he said the memories of his four years as a Topper overwhelmed him to the point he had to pull off to the side of the road.

Crook will play his final home game at Diddle Arena at 5:30 p.m. Saturday against rival Middle Tennessee State. He and guard Marcus Vasquez will be the only two senior players honored by WKU during pre-game Senior Day ceremonies.

“The last four years my life’s been based on WKU,” Crook said. “Just knowing that something like that is going to end sometime soon… you have relapses about the good times and the bad times.”    The 6-foot-3 Louisville native has had plenty of both during his basketball career.

Crook took a long route to become a Topper. He played his early high school career at Louisville Ballard High School, playing for a 2006-07 team that finished as state runners-up.

Before his senior year he transferred to Durango High School in Las Vegas. Crook said he and his father felt the school provided more visibility in his college recruitment.

But those college plans were put on hold when Crook’s SAT scores required him to go to a year of prep school at the all-male Bridgton Academy in Bridgton, Maine.

“At the time when I was there, I really didn’t like it,” Crook said of prep school. “But when I look back on it, it was definitely a great experience for me.

“It helped me out a lot, especially preparing me for college outside of basketball — life itself, in the classrooms and teaching me to be a better man — different things like that.”

Though he learned off-court discipline at Bridgton, he said nothing could prepare him for the physical play of Division I basketball he found when he got to WKU in 2009-10.

“I can remember him walking in here as a freshman about a buck fifty — a little immature,” said coach Ray Harper, who was an assistant during Crook’s first two and a half years at WKU.

Crook was thrown into the fire his first season, playing 32 games and starting 18. He averaged 2.2 points and 1.6 assists per game his freshman year.

 He handled primary point guard duties for much of his sophomore season, upping his averages to 3.6 points and assists apiece per game.

But it was last year, his junior campaign, that saw Crook really develop as an all-around point guard.

He led WKU in scoring six times during the 2011-12 season, including a 24-point, 9-of-10 shooting night against South Alabama in a Feb. 4 win. He also did something seven times last season that he’d never done in his WKU career — hit a 3-point shot.

“Growing up that’s all I did was drive the ball,” Crook said. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t shoot (3-pointers), it’s just that I didn’t shoot them.

“My first three years was 4-on-5, basically. Guys would play defense on me three steps behind the free throw line… Now guys can’t really play off me too far down because now they know I’m a capable 3-point shooter, which helps out a lot. That way, now when guys push up on me, I can use my driving ability to get past them and get guys open shots and better shots.”

Expectations were high for Crook this season after coming off a year in which he helped the Toppers to a Sun Belt Conference Tournament title.

Through 10 games Crook was putting up his best stats at WKU, averaging 15.5 points, 4.6 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game.

But his final season was derailed Dec. 16 when he broke his foot in a road loss to Murray State. He didn’t play again until Jan. 31.

The Toppers were 8-2 going into the game in which Crook was injured. By the time he returned to the lineup, they’d stumbled to an 11-11 mark.

“From about the middle of July until today, he played at another level,” Harper said Monday. “His attitude, his work ethic, just everything about him. I think it’s why he was poised to have an all-conference type season.

“I said when he went down he was the best point guard in the league. I’ll stick by that today.”

Crook’s transition back into the WKU lineup took off slowly at first. He scored double-digits just one time in his first four games back, getting 14 points in a Feb. 7 win over North Texas.

But in the Toppers’ last three games going into Thursday night he scored 18, 13 and 21 points apiece, leading WKU to a 2-1 record over that stretch. He also dished 16 assists between the three games.

His role as WKU’s veteran leader in his time back has been as important as his stats, freshman center Aleksejs Rostov said.

Crook has a reputation as a vocal, emotional and social player on the court — whether it be holstering imaginary pistols after a made 3-pointer, motivating teammates in timeout huddles or giving referees playful, ‘C’mon man’ looks after close calls go against him.

“(Crook’s) actually one of the best point guards I’ve played with so far,” said Rostov, who averages 4.4 points per game. “He is a funny guy in the locker room and he is a serious guy during practice and he’s the motor that drives everybody.”

Crook said his leadership responsibilities are a requirement for his position on the floor.

“They say everything starts with your point guard,” he said. “If things are going good, or even if things are going bad, you know you’ve got a point guard that’s always going to be there through the good and the bad.”

Crook wants to continue playing that point guard role in the pros once he graduates. He said he and Harper will work together after the season to get ready for a pro career, whether it be in the U.S. or overseas.

Once his playing days are over, Crook said he wants to stay near the game as a coach. Experiences growing up in Louisville can help him relate to young inner-city basketball players on and off the court, he said.

“I think I’d be a good coach,” said Crook, a recreation major. “I like working with little kids — outside of basketball also. I like to share my life experience.

“I see kids with the same situations I had growing up and going through the same experience and adversity. I just want to talk to them.”

As for his college career, Crook is guaranteed just two more games — Saturday’s matchup with MTSU and at least one Sun Belt Tournament game.

WKU is in a good position to play past those two games, Crook said.

“Right now, these last couple of games, we’ve really been playing well,” he said. “I want that to carry over and I want us to have that momentum.

“We’ve been through tough times before, especially with injuries. Everybody’s getting back 100 percent and I want everyone to know it’s going to be all right.”