COLUMN: Crook’s smile steals the show in WKU’s win

WKU sophomore guard Jamal Crook tries to keep the ball in bounds during the second half of Saturday’s game against Troy. Crook had eight points, nine assists and eight rebounds in the 77-58 win.

Jonathan Lintner

Sophomore guard Jamal Crook will soon learn that microphones catch everything at the interview table, even the small bit of self-praise Crook was willing to give himself after WKU’s 77-58 win over Troy Saturday night.

“Eight, eight and nine in 20 minutes — oh my God,” said Crook, talking under his breath before fielding questions from the media. “I don’t know what to say.”

Crook, hardly used to his seat in the Diddle Arena media room as a second-year player, really didn’t need to say anything, because the smile on his face said everything.

Crook finished with eight points, eight rebounds and nine assists — career highs in rebounds and assists — in what was unquestionably his best performance of the season. It followed another impressive showing against South Alabama last Thursday, when Crook tallied six points, six assists and three rebounds off the bench.

For the first time since Crook and his teammates were wrapping up first-semester final exams in December, the Toppers are on a winning streak. Basketball is fun again.

“We were taking the game too seriously,” senior forward Sergio Kerusch said. “We’ve got to crack jokes and have a great time out there because you’ve got to go back to the point why everybody started playing basketball: because it’s a fun thing to do.”

In a season where what’s left of a dwindling Diddle Arena crowd is looking for a better future — or simply something to smile about in the present — Crook’s pass-first mentality and light personality just might be the answer to WKU’s point guard problems.

Crook weaved through traffic seamlessly Saturday, committing just two turnovers to go with his nine assists. When slicing through the defense, he found players on the wing, under the basket, and even finished a few of the drives himself.

He looked like a comfortable point guard, leading Head Coach Ken McDonald to say Crook is “coming into his own.”

“Jamal was terrific today. I mean outstanding — best I’ve seen him since I’ve known him,” McDonald said. “It’s good to see him confident, and it’s good to see him making plays. I mean he’s a couple plays away from potentially a triple-double, which is really incredible.”

Then there’s the part about personality. It seems Crook is upbeat. Not only was he grinning from ear to ear during the second half of Saturday’s game, but he also gets others smiling.

“He is like 28,” McDonald said, laughing. “He’s like the oldest sophomore ever in the history of college basketball, and we bust him up a lot about that.”

Crook is actually just 22 years old, save a few months. But McDonald made his point.

And here is another point: in a season where WKU has lost guards Ken Brown to dismissal, Brandon Peters to ineligibility and most recently, walk-on Mike Gabbard to injury on Saturday, this is Crook’s time to earn some extra minutes.

It’s also the time for a high-energy, upbeat player to establish himself as a leader, or at least WKU’s best sixth man.

Despite being the only scholarship point guard left on WKU’s roster, Crook didn’t start against Troy. The nod instead when to shooting guards Kahlil McDonald and Caden Dickerson, known more for their shooting than for running an offense.

When Crook hopped off the bench with 15:50 to play in the first half, he had a say in WKU’s next 12 points — first with two made free throws, and then assists on five straight field goals.

“If I have to come off (the bench) the way I am, I have no problem with that,” Crook said. “I love Kahlil playing. He gets it going. Then I come right in, and I can just bring the energy up a notch.”

Every team could use a high-energy guy, especially one that’s 7-11 and getting into the thick of conference play.

WKU seems to have found that in Crook — and his smile.