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The Centerpiece: What Northwestern's Alex Olah means to the Wildcats

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Hidden in the shadows of the Big Ten, the senior big man has quietly been the key for Chris Collins' interior gameplan. Here's why its time for Alex Olah to take center stage.

Alex Olah is the key for Chris Collins and Northwestern basketball
Alex Olah is the key for Chris Collins and Northwestern basketball
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Most basketball fans outside the Big Ten have no idea who Alex Olah is. In fact, many inside don't either. In a season where Frank Kaminsky became a household name across America, another seven-footer was slowly developing into one of the premier centers in the conference, but in a much different way. What Kaminsky meant to Wisconsin cannot be understated, but what Olah means to Northwestern has the possibility to send the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament in program history.

Born in Timisoara, Romania, Olah didn't follow the traditional path to playing Division-1 basketball. After moving to the U.S. for high school and playing for the U-18 Romanian national basketball team, Olah received little to no interest from any other team in the NCAA. ESPN's recruiting page shunned him as a two-star, giving the big guy little respect even with his then 6-11, 250 lb frame. 247sports.com, one of the most popular recruiting sites on the web, didn't even bother to give him a rating. Nobody seemed even remotely interested. But at the end of Olah's junior year in high school, that would change. Then Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody swept in and gave Olah the only scholarship offer he would ever receive, a full ride to play for the Cats at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston.

From the get-go, Olah surprised everyone. He ran the floor with confidence, not shying away from the boards against much more experienced competition. As a freshman he logged 6.1 PPG and 4.1 RPG, fairly impressive numbers for a guy coming off the bench and playing 22.2 minutes per game. By sophomore year he saw a more elevated role, starting all 32 games for Northwestern while averaging a better 9.1 PPG and 5.2 RPG. This saw a more involved Olah, setting high post screens and going to work inside the paint. His presence yielded improvement to Tre Demps and then starting PG Dave Sobolewski, freeing up space so they could score.

Enter junior year. With the Cats gunning for an NIT berth, Olah showed up to play on a consistent, night to night basis. While Northwestern as a whole struggled to stay afloat, the big man flashed his potential, pulling down 12 boards against Illinois' Nnanna Egwu and dropping a career high 25 points while grabbing another 12 boards en route to the Cats' 2OT thriller over Michigan late in the year. After finishing the year averaging 11.7 PPG and 6.9 RPG, Olah received a nod from the B1G awards committee, earning an All-B1G honorable mention for his impressive 2014-2015 campaign.

So what's to expect in the future? Alex Olah has improved his game every single year. His PPG, RPG and FT% have all gone up each season. At the pace he's going, Olah is destined for Wildcat folklore as one of their best big men in program history. However, only one thing will cement his Northwestern leagacy: an NCAA tournament bid. Big picture, Olah offers the opportunity to do something for the program that has never been done before; make it to the Big Dance. Playing to his capabilities, he has the potential to be a huge difference maker both as a post presence and in a leadership role.

When Olah returns in the fall for his senior season, the quest begins to lead his teammates to the promised land. Whether that be through a second team All-B1G nomination or a more subtle influence on the court, the moment is there for the taking. Sometimes hope comes in big packages, and Cats fans should be thrilled to have it.