Northwestern Wildcats Basketball Season Previews: Nikola Cerina

Ethan Miller - Getty Images

A look at Nikola Cerina, a transfer from TCU who will begin his first season for Northwestern this fall. Can the 6-foot-9 forward from Serbia be an improvement on centers Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti for the Wildcats?

Rodger and Loretta8 love football, but they really really really love basketball. With about a month until Northwestern's season tips off, we're going to break down Northwestern's roster, schedule, and other stuff, because we want to share our disturbing obsession with the last major conference school to make the NCAA tournament with the world:

Nikola Cerina largely remains an unknown to Northwestern fans after transferring in from TCU last summer and sitting out last season. The 6'9", 245 pound center from Serbia, whose last name is apparently pronounced CHUR-nuh, may not be anywhere close to the player John Shurna was, but he does provide a few skills Northwestern is in desperate need of: namely, size, athleticism and rebounding.

During his two seasons at TCU, Cerina averaged about 5.5 points and 4 rebounds while playing 20 minutes per night, fairly modest numbers (especially considering those TCU teams finished at the bottom of the Mountain West). Where he excelled was on the defensive glass, grabbing a solid 18% of the available defensive rebounds according to KenPom.com. Since Northwestern was among the worst rebounding teams in the nation last season, any warm body even halfway decent at rebounding will surely get some minutes. Of course, that 18% total is right in line with Luka Mirkovic's career rate, but before you get too depressed, Cerina has been described as an excellent athlete by reporters like Teddy Greenstein who've seen him practice, so he should at least have a chance against other Big Ten big men.

That's the good news. The bad news is there are several red flags in Cerina's statistical profile, in particular on the offensive end. He isn't much of a threat from behind the arc, making just 7 of 24 threes in two years, and his career 50.6% 2-point shooting isn't a great total for a player of his size, especially considering his relatively low possession usage. Plus, his 58% career free throw percentage indicates he may not have much potential to improve as a shooter.

Another potential issue is Cerina's horrendous career assist to turnover ratio; in 2010-11 he had just 14 assists all year against 43 turnovers. As we've seen in Bill Carmody's Princeton offense, it's important for the center to be a good passer out of the high post, and Cerina doesn't seem to fit the profile.

YouTube scouting report: The only video evidence of Nikola Cerina being a real, live human being come from this three minute student-produced video from TCU. The majority of it is some probably-graduated-by-now Horned Frog student reporter narrating Nikola's story - he's from Serbia!


There are also three important highlights of him playing basketball against Utah, a trio of dominant plays that are repeated twice because they apparently have very little stock footage in Fort Worth. In those three plays, he a) hits a lefty baby hook b) drills a three c) dunks, relatively emphatically. I think this establishes a worst-case scenario of Ivan Peljusic.

The Texas Pan-American test: It's difficult to judge Nikola Cerina's skills considering he played against entirely different competition than Northwestern. Besides Jimmer Fredette, we don't know that much about the teams Cerina's TCU squads.

BUT WAIT: a mutual opponent appears! As we all know, nothing says "Northwestern basketball" like non-conference matchups with Texas-Pan American, a school none of us are still really sure exist? Who can forget when Northwestern won a tight 53-44 matchup back in 2010 thanks to 21 and 13 by John Shurna? Or when the Cats took a trip to the dreaded Broncs Zoo in JerShon Cobb's first collegiate game while a heavily accented announcer called Northwestern a Big Ten powerhouse? I know I will never forget these moments, so long as I live.

Cerina took on the Broncs once, on Jan. 20, 2010, about two weeks after they had played Northwestern. Here's his line:

17 minutes, 13 points, three rebounds, one assist, 6-for-6 shooting, 1-for-3 FTs, five personal fouls

Here are the lines Northwestern's big men put up in the matchup a few weeks earlier:

Luka Mirkovic: 23 minutes, 11 points, 11 rebounds (7 offensive), two assists, one block, three turnovers, 3-for-5 shooting, 5-for-9 FTs

Davide Curletti: 8 minutes, two points, one rebound, 1-for-1 shooting, three personal fouls

Kyle Rowley: 8 minutes, one point, 1-for-2 FTs, three rebounds, one block, assist, two personal foul

From this, we can learn oodles of information. For example: Cerina is the most efficient scorer of all time, but only 3/11ths as good at rebounding as Luka was. He is almost exactly as good at accumulating fouls as the combined forces of Davide Curletti and Kyle Rowley, which should frighten you and your children.

In other news, I'd like to announce my immediate resignation as SoP's lead writer to work full-time on my UT-Pan American website, The Broncs is Burning. With regards to Northwestern, good riddance: you guys are all jerks.

Cerina-bits: Nikola's high school was named after Nikola Tesla, one of the most important electrical inventors of all time, but obviously most famous to me for being a hard rock band, being played by David Bowie in The Prestige, and inventing lightning machines that can play the Super Mario theme song... I would point out how Nikola Cerina is the only "Nikola" I've ever encountered and its funny that his school was also Nikola-themed, but I suppose it's like being named "John" over there... Nikola's sister plays basketball at Oklahoma, so here's a video about her.

Looking forward

Rodger: A lot is made of the loss of John Shurna, but not many people are talking about the fact that both NU's centers from last season are gone. Mainly because neither was perceived as being any good. The bar is pretty low for Cerina to make a positive impact on NU. Both Curletti and Mirkovic had a few skills but mainly acted terrified whenever presented with the opportunity to do anything with the ball. If Cerina has a modicum of talent - and it seems he does - and manages not to be paralyzed by fear on offense, I think we'll like him. His tiny bit of shooting touch should help in the PO and he can dunk, which may or may not have been true of Mirkovic.

Last year, Northwestern played Reggie Hearn at power forward for large swaths of Big Ten play. Cerina might not be an all-conference performer - we don't know much about him at all, and he's NU's most experienced big man - but at least this team is gaining depth at the big man spots.

Loretta8: Despite his flaws, Cerina still could have a positive impact for Northwestern, depending on how much coaching he's received since coming to Evanston and whether he's willing to accept his role as the fifth offensive option. If Carmody has used Cerina's year off effectively, Cerina should be competent enough as a passer to at least not totally clog up the offense, and if he's able to make lay-ups with any regularity, he'll be a substantial improvement over NU's two centers from last year. His size and athleticism will certainly help NU defensively and on the glass as long as he can stay on the court; he committed more than 6 fouls per 40 minutes while at TCU, a number that needs to go down.

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