Men’s Basketball: With a new post game, Alex Olah steps up his contributions

With+a+newfound+post+game%2C+center+Alex+Olah+has+emerged+as+one+of+Northwestern%E2%80%99s+best+players.+The+sophomore+is+averaging+9.1+points+per+game+this+season%2C+and+his+.561+field+goal+percentage+is+seventh+in+the+Big+Ten.
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Men’s Basketball: With a new post game, Alex Olah steps up his contributions

With a newfound post game, center Alex Olah has emerged as one of Northwestern’s best players. The sophomore is averaging 9.1 points per game this season, and his .561 field goal percentage is seventh in the Big Ten.

With a newfound post game, center Alex Olah has emerged as one of Northwestern’s best players. The sophomore is averaging 9.1 points per game this season, and his .561 field goal percentage is seventh in the Big Ten.

Annabel Edwards/Daily Senior Staffer

With a newfound post game, center Alex Olah has emerged as one of Northwestern’s best players. The sophomore is averaging 9.1 points per game this season, and his .561 field goal percentage is seventh in the Big Ten.

Annabel Edwards/Daily Senior Staffer

Annabel Edwards/Daily Senior Staffer

With a newfound post game, center Alex Olah has emerged as one of Northwestern’s best players. The sophomore is averaging 9.1 points per game this season, and his .561 field goal percentage is seventh in the Big Ten.

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

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Alex Olah receives the ball with his back to the basket on the right block and an Illinois defender directly between him and the hoop. He pauses only slightly before backing into his man and pounding the ball into the ground.

On the momentum of one dribble, the center launches his 7-foot frame into the paint and extends into a left-handed hook shot. It soars over the defender and rattles into the basket — the first points of Northwestern’s 49-43 upset of Illinois on Sunday.

It’s a play Olah could never have executed a year ago, and one he would have been unlikely to convert even earlier this fall. These days, such by-the-basket displays are the main reason the sophomore has seen a hike in his efficiency and an expansion of his role in the NU offense this season.

Olah credits intensive pre- and post-practice workouts with assistant coach Brian James for his sudden and dramatic improvement in the post. He says he’s polishing his post moves “all day every day,” often coming in a half hour before practice and sometimes staying another 30 minutes afterward.

Last season, in former coach Bill Carmody’s Princeton offense, Olah was commonly stationed at the top of the key, where his primary function was finding teammates cutting to the basket. When new coach Chris Collins was hired in March, he immediately directed his center into the paint and soon dispatched James to work on Olah’s offensive game.

“We kind of started from scratch,” James recalled Tuesday. “We’re a new staff, obviously coming in with new players we didn’t know that well, so we just started from scratch. I said, ‘OK, show me your favorite post move.’ And then we wanted to do a couple of counters off that, what he feels comfortable with.”

The results have been visible in the highlights and on the stat sheet. Olah’s shooting percentage has skied from .415 to .561 (seventh in the Big Ten) as his shot selection has become more efficient. He’s averaging 9.1 points per game — up from 6.1 a year ago — and his offensive rating (an advanced statistic measuring a player’s efficiency in producing points) has risen from 88.8 to 112.4, per kenpom.com.

Other facets of Olah’s game appear improved as well. He has upped his averages in rebounds and blocks, while curtailing his turnovers, but Collins seems most pleased with the center’s defense, as displayed against Illinois. All night, Olah challenged Fighting Illini guards at the rim. He helped seal the game by drawing a charge with less than a minute to play.

“I thought he played a great game against Illinois, particularly defensively,” Collins said at practice Tuesday. “A lot of teams try to pick on him, maybe try to go after him, get him in foul trouble, put him in pick-and-rolls. I thought the whole game he was spot on with his defense and was a real presence for us.”

As if newfound post excellence and defensive improvement aren’t enough, Olah is also flashing some 3-point range. He hit his second three of the season against the Fighting Illini, and Collins has given the big man license to shoot when he’s uncovered beyond the arc.

“He’s got a nice touch,” the coach said. “That’s a shot he can make, and I want him to have the confidence. That can’t be all he does, but I want him, if he rolls out and he’s open, I want him to have the confidence to take that shot.”

In conversation about Olah’s development, “confidence” is something of a buzzword.

James talks about the confidence Olah has gained since a 23-point outburst against Wisconsin on Jan. 2. Olah himself mentions the confidence he gained last summer playing for the U-20 national team in his native Romania. And Collins sees the sophomore gaining confidence as conference play progresses.

The result (as well as perhaps the cause) of all that self-assurance has been steadily improving performance. In four Big Ten games, Olah’s scoring average, field goal percentage and offensive rating have all risen, as his teammates have increasingly fed him the ball inside.

The Wisconsin game provided a glimpse of all Olah can contribute with the ball in his hands. As NU struggled to score, the center took the ball again and again and, with his expanding array of post moves, carried the Cats to a respectable second half in the loss. In total, Olah was responsible for 10 of NU’s 19 field goals on the night.

After a season and a half of nomadic role-wandering within the offense, everything now seems to be clicking. Formerly little more than a space-clogger, Olah is now a central figure in NU’s offense, one of the go-to options for a scoring-starved team. And there’s no reason to believe his ascent is over.

“I’ve said it all along, big guys take time to develop,” Collins said Tuesday. “Sometimes we forget with Alex, he’s in his sophomore year. He’s four games into his conference season as a sophomore. This guy is going to be a good player. He’s getting better with each game.”

Olah is certainly not without flaws. He admits his rebounding needs improvement — he’s only third on the team, despite being its center and tallest player — and James mentions a desire for consistency from Olah. But no one questions how far he has come.

That development comes right in time for the Cats’ showdown against No. 4 Michigan State at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday. When healthy, the Spartans are one of the conference’s top rebounding teams, with burly forward Adreian Payne anchoring the front line.

Payne, averaging 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, would offer a difficult matchup for Olah, who has been know to be outmuscled down low on occasion.

But Payne is suffering from plantar fasciitis in his right foot and is unlikely to play against the Cats, freeing Olah from the task of guarding one of the conference’s best big men.

Not that Olah professes any concern about dealing with Payne if he does happen to play Wednesday. The 245-pound Spartan recently embarrassed Ohio State with a pair of SportsCenter-worthy put-back dunks, but Olah just smiles at the mention of the slams.

“I’m not worried,” he says. “I’ll box him out.”

He sounds confident.

Email: asputt@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @AlexPutt02

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