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Men’s Basketball: Does Alex Olah receive too much criticism?

Alex Putterman and Bobby Pillote

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There may not be a more polarizing figure in Northwestern basketball this year than center Alex Olah.

The junior displayed significant growth in his game down the stretch of last season, and was heavily invested in his conditioning this offseason. A true breakout season appeared ready to ensue.

Instead the opening months of the 2014-2015 campaign have been filled with questions about Olah’s production and whether the center is the Wildcats’ greatest disappointment this season.

The criticism has been persistent and strong, but is it entirely fair?

We turned to a pair of our crack writers to offer their takes on this burning question.

Why Olah criticism is fair

Bobby Pillote: Olah is currently fifth in the Big Ten in rebounding with 6.9 per game. 

That’s about the only accolade the Wildcats’ starting big man has earned halfway through the season, and given his listed 7-foot, 270-pound frame it isn’t even all that impressive. Of the four players ahead of Olah – Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes and Frank Kaminksy, Iowa’s Aaron White and Michigan State’s Branden Dawson – only Kaminsky stands taller than 6-9.

Olah, projected as one of the better centers in the conference coming into the season, simply isn’t taking full advantage of his size on the court. A seven-footer should be gobbling up boards, but watching Olah, he frequently gets outmuscled by smaller players and struggles with securing the ball.

The third-year center has also failed to develop the reliable post offense NU so sorely needs. The Cats’ leading scoring is junior guard Tre Demps with 12.4 points per game, and that’s coming from a dismaying 39 percent shooting percentage.

Olah should be getting more possessions in the post, but he isn’t nearly as effective as some of his competition in the Big Ten. Olah is only making 47 percent of his shots from the floor, but the four players above him in rebounding are also all shooting 50 percent or better.

The defensive aspect of Olah’s game has also been lacking. Ranking seventh in the conference in blocks per game, he’s average as a rim protector and also struggles with his on-ball defense in the post.This isn’t to say Olah is terrible, but the narrative that he’s one of the better centers in the Big Ten definitely needs to be reevaluated.

Why Olah deserves less grief

Alex Putterman: A wise man from a wise comic-book-turned-movie-turned-movie-again once said that with great power comes great responsibility.

And in a certain way, Spiderman’s curse similarly plagues Olah. The Romanian junior stands 7 feet tall, with a sturdy, filled-out frame and a fearsome scowl, and Northwestern fans seem to expect he’ll swallow opponents whole on the way to double-doubles.

Criticism of Olah seems to stem from expectations that, given his stature, he’ll be something he’s not. If we focus on his strengths instead of comparing him to our idealized conceptions of 7-footers, the assessment is fairly rosy.

Though his shooting percentage is down from last year, he’s improved from behind the arc, hitting a respectable 39 percent of his threes. Thanks to that newfound range, his effective field goal percentage is third among Cats contributors, and his offensive rating — which takes into account a wide variety of offensive statistics — is up for the second straight year, according to kenpom.com.

Rebounding has always been Olah’s greatest weakness, but he sure has improved: His defensive rebound rate has increased from 14.2 to 21.2 since last year while his offensive rebound rate has moved from 5.9 up to 8.4, per kenpom.com. In the former category, Olah ranks 134th in the nation, not too bad for a guy who seemed allergic to boards two year ago.

Add in his defense, which is solid by advanced stats, standard stats and the “eye test,” and Olah has a case as the Cats’ best player.

He’s also the best center NU has had in quite a while. Olah currently averages 10.1 points and 6.9 rebounds. The program has not had a center average double figures in points since Evan Eschmeyer in 1999 and has not had any player average as many rebounds in just as long.

Appreciate Olah. NU doesn’t get big men this good every year. Or even every decade.

Email: bpillote@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @BobbyPillote

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

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