COLUMN: Crook’s game a model for Tops to follow

Junior guard Jamal Crook charges to the paint during WKU’s game against Southern Alabama at Diddle Arena on Saturday. WKU beat Southern Alabama 75-66. Crook finished with a career-high 24 points and six assists.

Brad Stephens

Anyone else remember the Jamal Crook of old?

The passer, the table-setter, the ultimate role-player?

There were no signs of that guy Saturday night against South Alabama.

The Diddle Arena crowd was instead treated to a budding star having a career night, scoring 24 points on 9-of-10 shooting.

Crook’s ultimate moment came late in the second half when he hit a stepback 3-pointer and then drew two imaginary three-finger pistols and dropped them into imaginary holsters.

WKU’s junior point guard said after the game, a 75-66 Topper win, that the pistol move was one he adopted from Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook.

But the hand slaps, body bumps with teammates and “C’mon, man” facial expressions Crook made to referees after close calls were all spontaneous, unplanned reactions of a guy having some fun.

“Man, I was just playing basketball,” said a smiling Crook when asked about his career night. “Just taking what they was giving me, and I made the best of it.”

He made the best of it all right and not just shooting.

The former Louisville Ballard High School standout dished six assists, came up with a couple of steals, stayed out of foul trouble and played good defense all night.

It was the kind of effort that made Interim Head Coach Ray Harper tell Crook he “played like the best point guard in the conference” on Saturday.

“He’s really growing up,” Harper said. “He’s playing with great pace.

“He knew it wasn’t there and not to force it, but more importantly, he read the guys that were open, and when they got open, he got them that basketball. That’s what good point guards can do.”

The single-year transformation of Crook shows what can happen when a player grows up, works on his weaknesses and finds a system where he can excel.

But he’s just one guy in a rotation that can usually goes nine-deep.

They may not need a dramatic, Crook-style change-of-play shift from those other eight.

However, WKU will need each of those players to improve their games with the same enthusiasm and energy exhibited by Crook.

The Toppers will need junior center Teeng Akol to repeat his performance against South Alabama, in which he scored 13 points, grabbed five rebounds and swatted four shots.

Akol’s big moment of the night was a rare 3-pointer he hit in the second half that drew grins from the WKU bench and brought Diddle Arena to its feet.

But more importantly to Harper, the player known by some fans as “Goal-Teeng” because of his recurring goaltending violations, was in the right place defensively all night.

“I thought he was so alert off the ball,” Harper said of Akol. “He helped us four or five times with baseline drives — his rotation shutting the guy down.”

Just as impressive was George Fant, who scored 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds off the bench.

The more production the former Warren Central High School star can get in the post, the more open looks Crook, freshman guard Derrick Gordon and — who knows — maybe even Akol, will get for jump shots.

Fant, Akol and other Toppers need only to look to Crook for an example of a vastly improved basketball player.

Harper called Crook “our leader right now — no question about it.”

If the rest of the team follows that suddenly sharp-shooting, imaginary pistol-waving leader, WKU just might be a dangerous squad.