Pillote: Optimism abounds for the Wildcats’ next graduating class

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Pillote: Optimism abounds for the Wildcats’ next graduating class

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

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It was senior night for Northwestern on Tuesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena, but juniors guard Tre Demps and center Alex Olah were running the show.

Demps was the brazen hero, surprising everyone but himself with not one, but two odds-defying 3-point shots to extend the game: a step-back from well beyond the arc and a corner look made with two defenders closing out on him.

The guard poured in 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting and was a clutch-as-ever 4-for-5 from long range, while also dishing five assists to supplement his sickly backcourt mate freshman guard Bryant McIntosh.

Olah impressively played a career-high 44 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 12-of-18 for a team-high 25 points, pulling down 12 boards, making a 3-pointer in the second overtime to send the home crowd into a frenzy and walking off the court to chants of “Olah! Olah! Olah!”

Storylines about the Wildcats this season have centered on the growth of a young, freshman-laden team, but what has gone quietly unnoticed is the development of NU’s two star juniors. Each has picked up his play during the second half of the Cats’ conference schedule.

Earlier in the year I argued criticism of Olah was fully warranted, given how he and NU were failing to meet expectations, but that’s a much harder case to present now. The big man’s numbers are a little tricky to parse, given that’s he’s the biggest beneficiary of the Cats’ recent switch to a zone defense, but since the Feb. 15 contest against Iowa he’s averaging 35 minutes, 15.3 points, nine rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.

Not surprisingly, those are all improvements on his season numbers of 29 minutes, 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.

And it gets better. Olah showed a similar late-season surge in the final eight games of his sophomore campaign that he parlayed into the growth he’s shown this year. The center is definitely on an upward trajectory.

Demps, meanwhile, has rewritten the narrative surrounding him since NU’s Feb. 7 loss to No. 5 Wisconsin. Over the subsequent seven-game stretch he has averaged 16.1 points and 3.3 assists per game, improvements over his season marks of 12.7 points and 2.7 assists per game. Most encouragingly, over the same time span he has overcome his trademark inefficiency to shoot 53 percent from the floor and 49 percent from beyond the arc.

Every shooter has streaks, but there are signs of lasting progress for Demps. The shooting guard is averaging almost three minutes more per contest this season than he was a year ago, and despite a disproportionally higher usage rate, based on shots taken per minute, he’s actually become a more efficient scorer. Demps’ current 41.6 percent mark from the floor this year is significantly greater than his 38.3 percent clip from last season.

Demps and Olah both overcame McIntosh’s woes Tuesday to thrust the Cats to an incredibly improbable victory. Each player shone at an opportune time, and their performances are part of an overall trend of improvement rather than anomalous outliers.

Before the win over Michigan, NU hadn’t won a senior night game since 2011. With the dynamic pair of juniors back next season, that’s one trend that likely won’t continue.

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