Stephens: Life is better with Crook back in the lineup

Brad Stephens

I’m going out on a limb here and saying there probably hasn’t been a better scoreless, 0-for-7 shooting night in WKU history than the one Jamal Crook put together Thursday.

Maybe SID emeritus Paul Just can correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s hard to imagine another time when a Topper completely set the tone of a game while never once putting the ball through the net.

WKU (12-11, 6-6 Sun Belt Conference) outlasted Troy (9-13, 4-7) 65-61 Thursday in Diddle Arena. No player was more important to the final outcome than Crook, WKU’s senior point guard.

The former Louisville Ballard High School guard recorded twice as many assists as turnovers (six to three), grabbed four rebounds and a pair of steals in 27 minutes on the court — all while being held scoreless on seven field goal attempts.

Even if his shots weren’t going down, the way he ran the offense opened up plenty of opportunities for his teammates.

“(Crook) brought leadership on the court and brought confidence in the guys,” said freshman forward Aleksejs Rostov, who finished with 14 points. “Guys were getting the ball inside early and I tried to score early down in the block and it worked.”

Crook was playing for the first time since breaking his foot Dec. 16 in a 75-70 loss to Murray State. During his absence the Toppers went 3-8.

The Toppers’ problems during the last 11 games hadn’t been entirely because of point guard play. Brandon Harris filled in at the position and was the team’s best offensive player during Crook’s absence.

But putting Crook back on the court was the key component to opening up a WKU offense that had been stagnant over the last several weeks.

First there was the energy he brought — a factor that noticeably rubbed off on sophomore forward George Fant and sophomore guard T.J. Price.

Fant tallied 13 points and nine rebounds, leaping for loose balls, attacking the basket and playing with as much aggression as he has all year.

Price scored 17 points, 15 of which came in the second half. When Troy coach Don Maestri called a timeout after one of Price’s four 3-pointers, Price turned to the crowd and gave a passionate “let’s go” gesture.

“I think it was just an energy thing. He brings so much energy to our team,” Fant said of Crook. “People don’t really realize that, but he brings a lot of energy out there on the court.

“I know he tried when he was out, but just having him out there was just crazy. Throughout the practices throughout the week it’s just been a really good practice, everybody is ecstatic out there, everybody is playing really good defense. Even if he’s not scoring, he’s giving us energy.”

He opened up the Toppers’ offense for big men Fant, Rostov and Teeng Akol with his ability to get in the paint and draw defenders away from their responsibilities. The frontcourt trio of Akol, Fant and Rostov totaled 36 points Thursday.

His threat from the outside also opened up Harris and Price with plenty of good looks at jump shots. That duo hit six threes.

He initiated the offense,” coach Ray Harper said. “We got out in transition and got some 3-pointers that we had not been getting, he attacked the basket and the defense collapsed and we got some 3-pointers.”

All of Crook’s impact came without him scoring a single point.

He took a jump shot on WKU’s first possession of the game, which clanged off the rim. Two minutes later he missed another. Crook missed two more shots in the first half, then missed another three in the second.

“I’m not gonna lie, I was actually frustrated that I couldn’t score,” a smiling Crook said. “I feel like it’s the first time in a long time since I had a goose egg since freshman year. Coach Harper was telling me don’t really worry about scoring, it’ll come, first game back. I had some rust.

“I got a little frustrated not being able to score, but I can do other things then score. I got the teammates the ball when they needed it, I penetrated when I needed to, other than that, as the weeks go on, I think I’ll be back.”

Crook’s return to the lineup wasn’t just about having him back. It represented the fact WKU has its entire roster healthy for the first time since Caden Dickerson injured his shoulder against Louisiana-Monroe on Nov. 29.

Dickerson, Price, Crook, Fant and Kevin Kaspar have all battled injury this season. All of them are back on the floor.

A team that’s been fighting just to survive the last couple of months now has all the weapons in its arsenal.

“Guys, this is the first time I can look at this stat sheet and we have the entire roster in uniform since the Louisiana-Monroe game,” Harper said. “… “We have some depth and options on the perimeter now.”

With another week before its next game, Crook can have a few days to rest his foot and a few days of practice to get back acclimated into the offense.

The Toppers have eight games left until the Sun Belt Tournament.

With Crook and the rest of their key players healthy, they could be ready to make February and March another couple of months to remember.