EVANSTON-There were plenty of reasons to get the heck out of Evanston.
A new coach. A new system. A lack of depth.
In fact, the reasons to stay seemed few and far between. This team was better equipped for an NIT run than for its first NCAA Tournament berth, and the struggles from a 13-19 year were expected to continue into the 2013-14 season.
But Drew Crawford couldn't bring himself to leave Northwestern.
"At the end of the day, my parents' advice for me was to do what my heart told me to do," Crawford said, "and pretty much all along through the entire process, my heart was telling me to stay at Northwestern.
"So I considered it, but at the end of the day, I knew what I really wanted, and that was to stay here."
And, with that simple decision, the immediate and long-term future of Northwestern basketball got quite a bit brighter.
Crawford has quickly embraced new head coach Chris Collins and his "fiery," "super-energized" style.
"It's a greater energy around the program," Crawford said. "It's great to be back playing with my teammates again for one more year. And great to play under a new coaching staff. We're really excited about this new era we have going, and there's great energy around the program and we're working hard in practice every day. It's enjoyable."
As he looks to embrace the new regime, Crawford hasn't completely cut ties with the coaches from the former staff. He said he still speaks with former head coach Bill Carmody and former associate head coach Tavaras Hardy.
"I had an unbelievable experience playing for those guys," Crawford said. "So, yeah I stay in touch with them. They're still definitely my role models."
Crawford considered transferring to another school for his last season of eligibility after Carmody was fired in March. An Apr. 16 tweet from the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein suggested the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder was hearing from Missouri and Marquette. When four-star point guard and former Northwestern commit Jaren Sina committed to Seton Hall on Apr. 17, Crawford appeared to have plenty of reasons to leave Evanston.
After all, an NCAA tournament run at a school like Marquette seemed much more likely than the possibility of the same occurrence at Northwestern. With limited depth and the implementation of a new system, the Wildcats' 2013-14 season seemed to have little upside.
But none of that mattered. Crawford had already decided to stay.
"I'm excited to be at NU next year for one last season! I love my teammates and we're all ready to embrace Coach Collins' vision. #GoCats," tweeted Crawford, just a few days after the rampant speculation of a possible transfer.
And with that, Collins scored the first big win of his young coaching career. Looking back now, the first-year coach recognizes the importance of the fifth-year player's choice to return.
"My No. 1 priority when I took over here was to get Drew to be on board with us," said Collins on Tuesday at Northwestern's media day. "I'm a basketball junkie. I've seen a lot of games on TV, so I knew what kind of talent he was and what he'd done. And I just knew it was important to have him be all in with what we were doing."
Crawford's return will undoubtedly ease the growing pains of a Big Ten schedule that has already given Collins his fair share of stomach aches.
"It's been a huge thing for our program to have a guy, a fifth-year guy who's played in that many games, to be back and kinda help us as we start this thing start," Collins said. "He'll be the key anchor that gets us going here this year."
Though Crawford's presence will be felt on the defensive end of the floor and on the glass, he also provides the offensive spark Northwestern was missing last season. Northwestern scored just 60.7 points-per-game and often lacked players who were able to create their own shots.
That should change with Crawford back in the lineup. There are very few players in the history of Northwestern basketball with the same propensity for putting the ball in the basket.
Crawford will move into second place on the list of Northwestern's all-time leading scorers if he can average 15.5 points-per-game this season. If that number jumps up to an impressive 20.0 points-per-game, he'll pass John Shurna and grab the spot atop the list.
Crawford's leadership may be just as valuable as his scoring, though. Redshirt freshman Sanjay Lumpkin, who plays the same position as Crawford, said he considers the fifth-year senior a mentor.
"[I] just try to do what he does, just try to practice like him," Lumpkin said. "He's our leader."
As the team's leader this season, Crawford will try to take the team, once again, where it has never gone before.
Northwestern's new coaching staff, fast-paced practices and a free-flowing offense may give the Cats the chance to succeed in the always rugged Big Ten, but Crawford will be the player most responsible for turning that opportunity into reality. He's already feeling comfortable in Collins's new offensive system.
"There are some changes [in the new system], things you have to get used to, just different ways of doing things," Crawford said.
But while some parts of the Northwestern basketball culture are sure to change, others will remain the same. This, after all, is still Drew Crawford's team, and he wasn't about to walk away from his teammates.
"At the end of the day, more [so] than me being here and the way we were going to play, I think his love for this school and this area [convinced him to stay]," Collins said. "He knew he couldn't walk away from that.
"He wanted to finish what he started."