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Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Is Bradford the next mid-major star?

By Graham Hays
espnW.com

Crystal Bradford
Crystal Bradford averaged 16.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists as a sophomore last season.

School president Dr. George E. Ross had always taken an interest in coach Sue Guevara's program at Central Michigan. But when he saw the schedule she had put together for the upcoming season, Ross had a simple question for her.

What was she thinking?

It remains a good question. Coming off its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1984, Central Michigan will play just two home games before the calendar turns to 2014. There are road games at Dayton, Kentucky, Marquette, Notre Dame, Purdue and South Dakota State and matchups against Duke and Kansas on a neutral court in the Virgin Islands. And one of those two home games? It's also against Dayton, part of a home-and-home series.

At least the schedule got a vote of confidence from the person who should have the biggest hand in keeping the Chippewas afloat.

"I'm glad that we have a tough schedule -- nonconference schedule -- because, win or lose, we're preparing ourselves for the No. 1 goal, which is to win it all," junior Crystal Bradford said. "So that's what we're getting ready for."

Alrighty then.

Clearly, Central Michigan's leading scorer and reigning MVP of the MAC tournament isn't a shrinking violet. Then again, people who paid attention gathered as much when she went for 36 points, 14 rebounds and 7 steals as her team pushed heavily favored Oklahoma to the limit in a first-round NCAA tournament game this past March.

Crystal Bradford
Crystal Bradford tallied 36 points, 14 rebounds and 7 steals in an NCAA tournament first-round loss against Oklahoma last March.

From Courtney Vandersloot and Amber Harris through Julie Wojta and Elena Delle Donne, mid-major schools have contributed plenty to the ranks of All-Americans in recent seasons. As a new season begins, it isn't clear if any player out there beyond the power conferences is ready for quite those kind of accolades. But the best bet, and perhaps the most talented mid-major player in the country, is ready to take her shot in Mount Pleasant, Mich. -- or wherever the road takes the Chippewas.

"She's really talented," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, whose Irish faced Bradford last season in a closer-than-expected game. "I mean, she's a really good player. She can do so many things. She can score in a lot of ways, and she's a great rebounding guard."

In Bradford's case, the résumé is not just about what she did against the best of the best from the big conferences; it's about what she did alongside them.

Bradford was the lone mid-major representative on a United States roster for the past summer's World University Games that included proven college stars like Connecticut's Bria Hartley and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Baylor's Odyssey Sims and Nebraska's Jordan Hooper. Despite playing the eighth-most minutes on the team during the six games in Kazan, Russia, Bradford ranked fourth in scoring (joining Hartley, Mosqueda-Lewis and Sims as the only players who averaged in double figures), fourth in rebounding and tied for the lead in blocked shots.

She also led the way for Team USA by shooting 60.4 percent from the field, although it was a moment of 50 percent shooting that stood out.

The United States mostly cruised to gold in the tournament, including a 19-point win in the final against Russia, but the Americans found themselves trailing Australia by a point with less than 30 seconds to play in the semifinals. As Bradford described it, coach Sherri Coale called a play for Hartley in the huddle. But when Hartley got stuck with nowhere to go on the left wing, Bradford curled around a Mosqueda-Lewis screen at the top of the key and found the ball -- and Team USA's hopes -- in her hands.

"I couldn't believe I was that open, so I kind of rushed my first layup," Bradford said of her drive down the lane. "But I knew I had to get it back, so I rebounded and put it back in. I knew the second one was going in. After it went in, it was just all types of emotions, just excitement.

"I didn't think about what stage I was on. I think I would have had the same reaction in a MAC game or over in Russia."

She's the kind of kid who after the game you go, 'Dang, why didn't we recruit her?'

-- Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw on Crystal Bradford

Just for good measure, she scored 16 points in 11 minutes in the 90-71 win against Russia to clinch gold. This wasn't quite Delle Donne, who led a similarly star-studded team from the United States in scoring during the 2011 World University Games, but it was a strong statement from a 6-foot guard with the ability to go inside and outside.

"I wasn't trying to do anything that was out of my range or anything that I'm not used to doing," Bradford said. "This is how I always play and who I am as a person, and that's just who I was. I think it was to prove to myself that even though I'm in maybe a small conference, whether I went to a big school or not, I could hang with the big dogs."

Which is not to say a player who entered Central Michigan's starting lineup only part of the way through last season is a finished product. For all Bradford's steals, deflections and blocks, Guevara jokes that Bradford would have played more for Team USA if not for the fact that "she can't guard her shadow" in one-on-one defense. Not yet, at least. And there are occasions in both practice and games when the player falls a little too in love with the old adage that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take. Still, she's just halfway through her college career. And she brought back more than gold from Russia.

"I've heard things come out of her mouth this year that have been different, as far as the encouragement, as far as the leading by example," Guevara said.

A well-regarded recruit out of high school in the Detroit area (Hoopgurlz ranked her among the top 50 players in her class), Bradford said her mother had a vision that her daughter should go to Central Michigan. For her part, Bradford liked the thought of getting on the court as a freshman, instead of sitting behind seniors, and of creating her own legacy. Formerly on the other side of the recruiting divide as coach at Michigan, Guevara chalked it up to selling points like a player-friendly offense and a chance to play with AAU teammates and friends who were part of the same class.

Pick a reason or mix them all together. The end result was the kind of player rarely seen in the MAC made her way to Mount Pleasant, about 150 miles northwest of Detroit.

"Everybody was surprised," Bradford said. "Even people in my corner, a lot of people I thought were in my corner, they thought I would fail. They didn't think I would make it. Coming to Central, everybody was like, 'Well, why would she go there?' Especially out of Michigan, you think of Michigan or you think of Michigan State. God had a plan for me here."

She is a player who belongs on a big stage, and she's going to get it this season.

As McGraw said, "She's the kind of kid who after the game you go, 'Dang, why didn't we recruit her?'"

It's a question coaches on quite a few very good teams might ask in the months ahead.