On Sunday, Northwestern head coach Chris Collins announced that center Alex Olah would be sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury. Big Ten Network later reported that the Wildcats staff expects him to be out two or three weeks. Needless to say, this is a very important loss for Northwestern.
The Wildcats (12-1) are off to their best start in 85 years, much in part due to Olah's performance on the court. The senior is currently averaging 12.8 PPG and 6.5 RPG, good for third and first on the team. Most importantly, his presence in the paint is a major key to the NU offensive and defensive schemes. This includes anything from running the pick-and-roll with Bryant McIntosh to screening off the ball to a Tre Demps jumper. Olah is the glue that holds this team together.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, they have a second option in Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren. The backup center is currently averaging 4.3 PPG and 4.1 RPG, but will see a significant increase in playing time over the next couple weeks. Given the fact that he averaging nearly 10.0 PPG last season with the Hokies, van Zegeren should be able to fill Olah's role nicely, at least for the time being.
Another good sign for the Wildcats is that in their first game without Olah, they were still able to come away with a victory. While their 74-59 win over Loyola (Md.) took a second-half comeback, NU received incredible production out of McIntosh. The sophomore point guard has been fantastic thus far in 2015, averaging 16.2 PPG and 6.8 APG. If he is able to keep up the scoring production in Olah's absence, the Wildcats will have a much easier time escaping with some wins.
The biggest downside to the injury (other than that it came to one of the Cats' best players) is that it comes right at the forefront of the Big Ten schedule. One of the reasons that Northwestern has been able to have such success early is due to their weak strength of schedule. According to KenPom, the Wildcats had the 342nd best SOS in the non-conference, a dismal ranking to say the least. Now entering Big Ten play, Northwestern will get their first real tests as they take on one of the best conferences in the nation.
Depending on Olah's status, he could miss up to five games. Those five come at Nebraska, at home vs. #4 Maryland, at home vs. Ohio State, at Minnesota and home vs. Wisconsin. While Nebraska would normally be a winnable game, it'll be more difficult without Olah, especially because it is on the road. Still, KenPom gives them a 58% chance to come away with the victory. As far as Maryland, well without Olah, it's pretty much a lost cause. That doesn't mean they won't put up a fight though. Ohio State is again winnable, as are the next two against Minnesota and Wisconsin. However, there's a high probability that the Cats drop at least a couple here.
I would expect Northwestern to lose two or three of the next five games. Once they play Nebraska, we should get a better look at this team to see if they are for real, but the Maryland game as well as one or two of the next three games are likely losses. But if this is the year for Northwestern, there's a chance they could surprise us all.