Northwestern basketball preview: Wildcats hope Alex Olah develops up front

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The Wildcats are always a bit overmatched up front. They're counting on a big year from Alex Olah to keep that from happening again.

Northwestern's frontcourt has always been kind of a joke. (Remember Luka Mirkovic? You remember Luka Mirkovic.) The Wildcats have never really had a dominant scorer down low unless you count Evan Eschmeyer, and NU was either doomed to get dominated by opposing bigs on defense, or give up tons of offensive rebounds playing out of the 1-3-1 zone.

The Wildcats won't control games down low in 2013-14. But they've got some promising stretch-type players at the power forward position and a center who showed flashes in Alex Olah. The team will need Drew Crawford to be excellent to be competitive, but they'll also need at least somewhat passable play from their guys up front.

The starters

Alex Olah, 7'0, sophomore, 6.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.0 apg, .9 bpg

There's a reason Olah ended up as one of the top five centers when we tried to rank the best in the conference earlier this year. He's got some size, and he's not clueless in the post. He was a force to be reckoned with in international play for the Romanian U20 team this summer, dropping 16.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, and even shooting 10-for-26 from beyond the arc.


But Olah didn't often look like a double-double threat his freshman year -- his season highs were 12 points and 9 points respectively.

The hope is that he was a work in progress. Sometimes Olah seemed like he could hit shots over either shoulder. Sometimes he held his own on the glass. Others he looked unfamiliar with the concept of dribbling basketballs and got pushed around by the opposition. Even so, he was a major improvement for the Wildcats at center and their most formidable option.

umm we don't really know who's starting at power forward

And even if we did, it would be two players possibly best suited for small forward.

Sanjay Lumpkin, 6'6, redshirt freshman

Lumpkin had a series of injuries that kept him off the court last year -- mono, then his wrist -- and ended up redshirting after four games. It's tough to say much about him from a very small sample size.

What we do know is that Northwestern will probably ask the Twin Cities product to guard power forwards, which is a really tough thing to ask of a 6'6, 210-pound freshman, redshirt or not. His rebounding has been praised, though, and that's a department where Northwestern will be sorely lacking. The Wildcats were lucky to have Jared Swopshire last year, and he filled in as a solid guy-who-should-be-playing-small-forward-but-did-the-rebounding-of-a-big-man, and this year, NU could turn to Lumpkin.

Nathan Taphorn, 6'7, freshman

Taphorn is the only member of Bill Carmody's final recruiting class, and unlike Lumpkin, we know exactly what we'll get out of him: shooting. Taphorn was considered one of the best pure shooters in the country, and the rural Illinois native very much fits the stereotype of a spindly Carmody contributor. He's 190 pounds and looks even lighter, so he'll also get bodied by bigger guys, but if he can spread the floor, that'll make up for it.

Backups

Kale Abrahamson, 6'8, 4.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg, .4 apg

Abrahamson was hailed as the second coming of John Shurna -- tall, thin, goofy-looking, extremely awkward shot -- and he hit his fair share of Shurna-esque 30-footers. What he didn't display was any ability to do anything besides shoot. That includes defense, rebounding, passing, whatever. Last year he worked his way into a starting role -- rather, had a starting role thrust upon him due to injuries -- and although he can be useful as a bench shooter, his role will be heavily diminished this year.

Nikola Cerina, 6'9, senior, 1.1 points, 1.1 rpg, .3 bpg

Huge enigma here. As previously mentioned, Northwestern had dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of injuries last year that forced every walking human on Northwestern's campus into games early and often. Despite that, Cerina -- a transfer from TCU who averaged 6.0 points per game as a freshman, with several solid games against Jimmer Fredette and BYU -- remained glued to the bench as a healthy scratch.

I didn't understand why, and still don't. Whenever he played, he looked perfectly fine in Northwestern's Princeton Offense, making the passes he was supposed to and not turning the ball over as frequently as the guys ahead of him and was as good at defending opposing big men as anybody else on Northwestern's roster. I'd be surprised and a bit disappointed if Cerina doesn't merit a bigger role, especially with the disappearance of Mike Turner from the roster. He should be Olah's first backup option, perhaps even capable of playing the four next to Olah to combat more intimidating opposing frontlines.

Chier Ajou, 7'2, redshirt freshman, 1.1 ppg, .6 rpg

Ajou is a 7'2 South Sudanese man who was kidnapped by militia, escaped and somehow made it to the United States. He's either 21 or 22 years old -- his birthday isn't listed on NU's site, we're going off this Outside the Lines story from several years ago on his amazing journey -- and is a redshirt freshman. He played a few games last year, but took a medical redshirt due to injuries. (Yes, NU had four players take medical redshirts last year.)

On the one hand, he looked incredibly, incredibly raw in his seven appearances, most extremely brief. This is what you expect from a 7'2 South Sudanese man who has ben playing basketball for just a few brief years. On the other hand, he's a 7'2 South Sudanese man. That has to be useful in some way, right?

He also swished his only three last year, so I think we can safely assume he's a knockdown shooter.

Aaron Liberman, 6'10, redshirt freshman

All I know is this: if and when the kid with the Under Armour yarmulkes checks into a game for the Wildcats, the Welsh-Ryan crowd will explode. (Yes, he wears the yarmulke while playing. No, we don't know if he will play on Friday nights or Saturdays. No, it probably won't matter since he's a walk-on.)

Biggest question: Can Alex Olah develop?

What Northwestern has is a 7-foot, reasonably strong player with some basketball instincts. He has obvious flaws -- foot speed -- but the size and some of the moves are there.

He still seems to be a bit of a blank slate. He looked like a back-to-the-basket guy last year, but he can shoot 40 percent from three in international play, and shooting's the same in Europe as it is in America.

Olah might be the team's third-best player behind Crawford and JerShon Cobb, and he might be the team's best player at some point in his career. It's on Chris Collins and his staff to make that happen sooner rather than later.

Overall

Northwestern is going to be in defensive trouble with their bigs against real competition. Olah is their only proven option, and he's not a spectacular defender.

Past him, they've got some wings who will be guarding fours out of necessity and a cast of characters who weren't fit to play last year on a team that struggled.

In my dream world, those players come together. Olah's fine. Cerina gets minutes. Ajou blocks everybody in sight. I buy an Aaron Liberman jersey, complete with custom tallit.

Most likely, NU gets eviscerated down low on defense, with Taphorn/Lumpkin/Abrahamson failing to stop much and Olaha slightly below average Big Ten center on both ends of the floor.

In a realistic dream world, Collins plays some defensive schemes to mitigate how defensively poor this team should be. I know Duke guys hate zones, but NU will need to do that to hide its flaws, and that should also keep some of the carnage from happening. Either way, the frontcourt seems like a problem for the Wildcats, and they'll have to figure out ways to deal with it.

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