Pillote: Northwestern basketball will be better without Tre Demps, Alex Olah


Bobby Pillote, Web Editor

Men’s Basketball

Our favorite sports teams often find ways to surprise us and exceed expectations, especially in the face of player injury or loss.

In 2001, sportswriter Bill Simmons popularized “The Ewing Theory” to help explain this phenomenon. The idea is named for basketball superstar Patrick Ewing and the tendency for Ewing’s teams to play better without him on the floor despite Ewing’s obvious talent.

For Northwestern men’s basketball, the theory is about to be put to the test.

The Wildcats seem poised to regress in every possible way next year. Seniors Alex Olah and Tre Demps, the team leaders in rebounds per game and scoring, respectively, are graduating and NU will again be slogging through an intensely competitive Big Ten schedule. But as impressive as Demps and Olah have been in their careers, losing them will be addition by subtraction.

Demps’ signature throughout his career as a Cat was being markedly inefficient. This showed itself in his frequent shooting slumps throughout the 2015-16 season and was hardly rectified even as Demps got hot toward the end.

Among the top 20 scorers in the Big Ten this season, just three shot worse from the floor than Demps’ dismaying 39.8 percent. And unlike players such as Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes, who make up for their lackluster shooting with volume at the foul line, Demps never got there, averaging just 2.4 attempts per game, and couldn’t finish when he did, rating as the worst free throw shooter among the top 20 scorers by connecting just 66 percent of the time.

And to watch Demps on the court is to witness incessant dribbling and questionable shot selection. That Demps attempted 217 3-pointers this season while making just 33 percent of them is a crime against basketball. His ball-stopping theatrics were fantastic when they worked, but they all-too-often didn’t.

Olah gets more of a pass for playing through a foot injury his senior season, but he still had serious shortcomings as the Cats’ de facto big man. The 7-footer was never more than an average rebounder who succeeded because of his height more than his skill.

Offensively, NU frequently relied on Olah’s high ball screens and soft touch around the rim, but outside those two tasks, Olah too often settled for midrange jumpers away from the basket and was seldom an effective partner on the pick-and-roll.

The Cats can do better, and help is on the way.

Dererk Pardon arrived early as the center of the future after burning his redshirt to fill in for an injured Olah, and despite some growing pains as a true freshman, he still showed that he’ll excel in ways Olah didn’t.

Pardon grabbed 10.1 rebounds per 40 minutes this season, nearly a full board more per 40 minutes than Olah and on par with other top rebounders in the conference. And though he isn’t as gifted a shooter as Olah, Pardon has a much better knack for getting to the rim and finishing strong.

The backcourt picture is slightly more complicated, with some combination of sophomore Scottie Lindsey, freshman Jordan Ash and incoming recruit Isiah Brown likely to take over Demps’ minutes.

Lindsey proved to be an exceptional spot-up shooter, nailing 41 percent of his 3s, and also brings more length to NU’s perimeter defense than Demps did. Ash is a serviceable secondary ball handler and defender as a backup. Brown, meanwhile, averaged an insane 28.3 points per game his senior season and should be capable of delivering the kind of instant scoring Demps was often relied upon for.

Demps and Olah are good players who did much for the Cats’ program, but they were far from enough to deliver NU to the promised land of the NCAA tournament. That’s up to the next generation of Cats, who should fare quite a bit better now that the two seniors have run out their playing time.

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