RENO — Geno Crandall has never had a problem finding extra juice to kick his play on the basketball court into overdrive. Understanding when to release his emotional, high-octane style was the biggest challenge for North Dakota’s hyperactive point guard.
Crandall could not wait to unleash his energy on the Big Sky Conference as he watched as UND tiled through an eight-win season Crandall’s redshirt year. Last season, Crandall burst onto the scene, earning UND’s starting point guard job next to steady combo guard Quinton Hooker. Crandall’s confidence, explosiveness and defensive competitiveness were apparent from the outset of his first season running the show in Grand Forks. But his volatility proved detrimental at times.
This season, the sophomore has maintained his reputation as one of the league’s top defensive players while channeling his electric personality into the perfect compliment for the unwavering Hooker.
“He’s been tremendous,” UND head coach Brian Jones, the Big Sky Coach of the Year, said earlier this month. “You look at teams like Montana, (Griz sophomore Michael) Oguine has the toughest defensive matchup every night. What’s different about Geno is he runs our team AND he usually guards the other team’s best player. His ability to do that, bring a motor and energy, there’s been so much growth. There’s been good days, bad days but he’s such an impassioned player who wants to win at a high level.
“He’s young man who has a high ceiling and now what he’s really embraced is that he understands that he makes Quinton Hooker better but also, Quinton Hooker makes him better as well. Sometimes when you have that mentor embrace the one-two punch and you find consistency, it helps the team.”
Crandall is shooting 50.4 percent from the floor and averaging 15.6 points to go with 4.1 assists per game. He shot 51 percent from the floor and 38 percent from beyond the arc in Big Sky games, averaging 16.7 points and dishing out nearly five assists per game.
Crandall also has 55 steals in 29 games, making him the lone player in all of Division I to average 15 points, four assists, two steals and shoot 50 percent from the floor. The 6-foot-3, 175-pounder earned second-team All-Big Sky honors after helping lead UND to the outright Big Sky title, the school’s first since joining the league in 2012.
“I’ve been in the league now for three years and I’ve watched North Dakota grow from a team that lacked an identity and confidence two and a half years ago to a team that is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence and an identity,” MSU third-year head coach Brian Fish said. “I think Geno gives them some swagger. He’s a risk-taker. I think Hooker has provided good leadership for them. They are a well put together team and certainly a handful for whoever plays them. Geno causes a lot of those problems.”
North Dakota stumbled to an 8-22 mark that included just four Big Sky wins with Crandall waiting in the wings. Last season, UND was among the most improved teams in the league, winning 10 league games and advancing to the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament.
With Hooker, a first-team all-league selection last season, returning for a senior season filled with MVP-level expectations, the Fighting Hawks knew Crandall’s continued development would be key to their success.
The wiry, long guard didn’t waste much time showing how much he’s improved. He scored 24 points and snared three steals in UND’s victory at North Dakota State. He scored 28 points on 10-of-13 shooting in a loss at Montana, 31 points on 10-of-14 in UND’s next game, a win over Weber State and 31 points later on in January in a narrow two-point win at Southern Utah.
“I think he’s made a big, big, big difference for their team,” Weber State 11th-year head coach Rahe said. “He’s had a great year and he’s made great improvements and he’s been critical to their team. He’s that extra guy. They have Quinton, who is really good and now they have Geno, who is so improved. To me, it’s confidence. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, a lot of belief in himself and that rubs off on his team.”
While Crandall’s athleticism and explosiveness is obvious, Hooker’s steadiness and efficiency has been crucial for UND’s title run. The 6-foot guard, who like Crandall hails from Minneapolis, is averaging 19 points and five rebound per game, including 20.1 points and 5.2 boards in Big Sky play. Hooker is shooting 49.2 percent from the floor and 46.3 percent from beyond the arc in league competition and he has converted 73 of his 80 free throw attempts, good for 91.3 percent, tops in the conference.
“We complement each other really well,” Crandall said. “He’s a more down to earth, really balanced, extremely talented guard. I’m just the one that is flying around pretty reckless. It’s a pretty good 1-2 punch.
“It helps us both because we can take the pressure off each other sometimes. I can get going too much a little bit sometimes, have too much energy sometimes. Q can slow us down, get everything back under control while I do my part on the defensive end.”
Crandall grew up playing in inner-city gyms in the Twin Cities, honing a style filled with street ball elements but oozing with basketball IQ, Jones said. The late bloomer did not receive much recruiting interest as a 6-foot-1, 165-pounder at De La Salle High School.
“Growing up, I was always a smaller guard, shorter, and I could never shoot the ball well so I had to play as hard as I could,” Crandall said. “I had to play hard to have a chance to be competitive. I grew a little bit late and I always kept that inner-city style of play, always attacking, playing hard on defense, hard on offense and everything else will take care of itself.”
During the year he graduated and then spent redshirting, Crandall sprouted to 6-foot-3. When he came on his official visit to Grand Forks, he spent a lot of time with Hooker, who convinced Crandall of the potential of what UND’s program could become. The two have paved a pipeline from the Twin Cities to North Dakota that has paid dividends as the program guns for its 20th win against Portland State in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament on Thursday afternoon.
“We built a big buzz up here in Grand Forks with what we are doing,” Crandall said. “It hasn’t been done before since we joined the Big Sky and something we take a ton of pride in. From being where we were two years ago my redshirt year, one of the worst teams in the conference to last year surprising some people to this year deciding we wanted to take the next step, we really wanted to own that. We wanted to be able to say we won the conference and earned the No. 1 seed going into Reno.”
One of UND’s four conference losses came in the league opener for both teams at Portland State the last weekend in December. North Dakota’s hellish week of travel because of severe winter weather culminated in PSU forcing 26 turnovers in a 99-62 victory. North Dakota stamped its regular-season title 10 weekends later with an 82-73 win in its home finale and final game over the Vikings to enter the tournament having won eight of nine.
The steady progression of sophomore post Conner Avants, the consistent play of senior guard Corey Bladwin and the emergence of sophomore sixth man Cortez Seales have all been critical for UND’s surge. But Crandall’s ability to harness his rare skills has put the Fighting Hawks over the top.
“He’s a special talent because of his length, his speed, his athleticism but his IQ is off the charts too,” Jones said. “There’s guys out there who are gifted physically but he’s gifted mentally as well. That’s what will continue to set him apart.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.