'Big Steve' ready for big year after offseason of physical growth

‘Big Steve’ ready for big year after offseason of physical growth

MADISON, Wis. — Be the windshield, not the bug.

That has been the message Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball coach Greg Gard has relayed to Steven Crowl numerous times over the last two years. During that span, Crowl, the 7-foot center, has shown promise in its development from a reserve in 2020 to a full-time starter last season. The junior has garnered praise for his basketball IQ, his ability to score when needed and his fundamentally sound defense.

But if anything was clear as Crowl matched up against Big Ten big men in 2021, it’s that he had a ways to go in being able to match his counterparts in size, strength and physicality.

“He’s been the bug for the last year and a half or so,” Gard said.

Now, though, he looks and plays more like the windshield after an offseason of immense physical growth. That’s why the Badgers have high hopes for another significant leap from Crowl in his second season as a critical contributor on both ends of the floor.

“He’s more confident,” Gard said. “He’s gone from under 220 to tickling 250 now. It’s not just the weight — strength is important — but it’s the confidence that comes with being bigger. He feels good about himself physically. He can impose his will in the post. He’s been hard to handle in terms of when he gets the position.”

Crowl understood the importance of this offseason well before Iowa State eliminated the Badgers in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 last March. He started all 33 games for the Badgers, and matches against Kofi Cockburn (Illinois), Zach Edey (Purdue), Trayce Jackson Davis (Indiana) and Hunter Dickinson (Michigan) illustrated how much he needed to grow physically.

Cockburn (7-foot-285) scored 37 points against the Badgers, Edey (7-4, 295) scored 41 points over two matchups, Jackson-Davis (6-9, 245) scored 39 points over two matchups, and Dickinson (7-1, 260 pounds) scored 21. Others like Rutgers’ Cliff Omoruyi (6-11, 240) and Michigan State’s Marcus Bingham Jr. (7-0, 230) were challenging matchups too.

Crowl will face Edey, Jackson-Davis, Dickinson and Omoruyi again this season.

“I bulked up and got stronger,” Crowl said. “Just being able to box out, post up and hold my own a little bit more… I learned last year how physical the Big Ten is. You have to be physical, or you’re going to get your butt kicked.”

Of course, Crowl’s efforts to gain weight and muscle included plenty of sessions in the weight room. He said he worked out each day in the spring and summer (aside from weekends) until the Badgers traveled to France in August. The other half of his adjustment required him to increase his calorie intake.

“I needed to eat a lot and drink a lot of protein,” Crowl said. “It was a good mix of both. I tried to eat as much as I could, to be honest. I also tried to lift a lot to make those muscles stronger.

“…Just getting strong this offseason and staying in the weight room with Snides (Jim Snider) and the strength and conditioning staff, whether it was working on my lower body or upper body. I think conditioning will be a big thing too, just being able to play a lot of minutes.”

Games will be a better measuring stick for Crowl — the Badgers open the season on Nov. 7 — but he’s already noticed a difference in his play. With an improved ability to “move people around in the post,” Crowl figures to be much more effective on both ends of the floor this season. He averaged 8.8 points per game on 49.6% shooting and grabbed 144 rebounds (third on the team) last season. He dished out 48 assists, blocked nine shots and recorded nine steals.

“Steve is so skilled at his size,” assistant coach Sharif Chambliss said. “His confidence has started to speed up. I think it has gone from first to second gear real quick, and it’s close to three. Physically, he’s done the things we’ve asked him to do. He’s put on that weight, he’s a lot stronger, and I think he’s ready to show what he can do.”

His teammates would certainly agree based on what they’ve seen throughout the offseason and the first few weeks of practices.

“Steve has gotten big,” senior forward Tyler Wahl said. “I used to be able to hold my own. But now, if I gave him a good push, he’s definitely hitting me back. I have seen great strides from him. I think he’s going to have a great year this year.”

Sophomore point guard chucky hepburn added, “Big Steve. He’s definitely made strides — big strides. Whether he’s on the defensive or offensive side, he’s battling. He’s finishing a lot more than he was last year.”

He’s been working for those results for almost two years with Gard’s saying in mind.

“He’s bigger and stronger,” Grad said. “Now he’s starting to control the paint on both ends of the floor.”

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