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VOL. 132 | NO. 15 | Friday, January 20, 2017

Markel Crawford Finally Arrives In His Redshirt Junior Year

By Don Wade

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It’s a distinguished list of alumni that have gone from Melrose High School to play basketball at the University of Memphis: William Bedford, Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson and Adonis Thomas. And yes, Markel Crawford planned to uphold that legacy.

University of Memphis redshirt junior guard Markel Crawford is having the best season of his collegiate career, basically tripling his scoring average and shooting with much more accuracy from long range.  

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But his first two seasons playing for coach Josh Pastner were layered with disappointments. His Tiger career was not going the way he envisioned it. Until this season, in fact, he had never scored more than 17 points in a game.

“Every kid imagines getting a 30-point game, career highs,” Crawford said.

When Crawford popped for 28 points in an upset of a ranked South Carolina team on Dec. 30 this season that was his career high. He bested the effort with 30 points in a win over USF on Jan. 14. He also has had a 20-point game and a 24-point game.

In fact, to look at his season averages this season as a junior and compare them to the numbers he collected the previous two years is to wonder if he’s even the same player. He has gone from a scoring average of less than six points per game to averaging 15.8 points going into the Tigers’ game at Houston on Thursday, Jan. 19.

Crawford’s knee wasn’t all the way right after an ACL injury in high school. That injury also clinched that he would come to Memphis. Other schools that had shown interest in the athletic guard, including Ole Miss and Tennessee among about half of the SEC, as well as Texas and UCLA, backed off.

He didn’t shoot well in his freshman and sophomore seasons here and by his own admission wasn’t receptive to coaching from the Pastner staff. But when Tubby Smith talked, Crawford was ready and willing to listen.

“He’s got good mechanics,” Smith said. “He had that all the time. We’re not gonna take all the credit.”

But that’s not to say his shot was just fine. Crawford tended to focus on the flight of the ball and sometimes shoot off balance. They were things that Smith, who has taken five different schools to the NCAA Tournament, has seen before in other players.

“They all have a tendency to slip back into (bad habits),” Smith said “Kids watch a lot of NBA, watch LeBron James fall away and land on one foot and they think they can do it, but they’re not that good. Balance, technique and fundamentals will beat all the fancy stuff every day.

“And it takes maturity, growing up. I wasn’t the greatest shooter myself, but I studied the game and the mechanics of it. (Markel) put in the time.”

Obviously, no player’s success occurs in a vacuum. When opponents focus on stopping forward Dedric Lawson that helps Crawford. So does good team ball movement, which has been there at times and disappeared some nights.

Through 18 games, all as a starter, Crawford was shooting 54.3 percent from the floor, 40.3 percent from 3-point range (29 of 72), and 81.5 percent from the free throw line. All are career highs. He has had only two games this season, the most recent an 8-point performance in the Tigers’ loss at Tulsa on Jan. 8, when he didn’t score in double-figures.

“I was a little passive,” he said. “My mindset has to be the same through each game, good or bad. I have to find something throughout the game to do better if my shot’s not falling.”

Smith is very much on board with that sentiment. Crawford is 6-foot-5, but with his leaping ability can play bigger. He is averaging a career-high 4.8 rebounds. Smith believes Crawford can improve on that.

“He’s got to go to the boards more often. That’s one of the things I try to tell him – offensive rebounding,” the coach said. “He probably could have scored 40 points in that (USF) game if he got two or three offensive rebounds. And that’s not looking for perfection, that’s just telling the truth.

“I‘d like to see him average six to eight rebounds a game. That’s what I need from him. That’s what the team needs from him.”

Crawford says his confidence is as high as it has ever been and he also gives an assist to former Tigers guard Chris Crawford (no relation), who has been working out at the Finch Center until another pro opportunity comes along. Chris Crawford was never afraid to launch a three and Markel Crawford, who went 5 of 6 behind the arc in his 24-point game and 5 of 10 in the 30-point game, is starting to think the same way.

“Whenever it leaves my hand, I’m thinking it’s going in,” he said.

He’s also thinking that things are starting to turn out just like he once imagined.

“I’m in a good spot right now. I just want to stay humble, not get too cocky or too high or too low. Family’s real proud of me and one thing I wanted to do was make my family proud.”

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