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Alex Olah Knows He's Improving

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

There is a fundamental disconnect between Bill Carmody’s perception of Alex Olah’s preparation for Tuesday night’s road win at Baylor and Olah’s first-hand account of the events.

Northwestern headed to Waco as the decided underdog for several reasons, one of them being Baylor’s prior win at Kentucky that snapped the Wildcats’ 55-game unbeaten streak at Rupp Arena, another the Wildcats recent two-game skid, punctuated by a home loss to UIC. Arguably the most glaring disadvantage was Baylor’s height and athleticism in the front court.

Depending on your source, freshman center Isaiah Austin is one of the top three-rated players in the class of 2012 and the  No. 2-ranked center. In today’s social media-infused world, where recruiting has grown into a nationally-followed enterprise, that’s not the type of player you gloss over during pre-game film work. But according to Carmody, Olah isn’t the type to get wrapped up in recruiting rankings and NBA draft credentials.

In fact, Northwestern’s coach intimated Olah had no knowledge of Austin’s credentials.

“I don’t even know if he knows that,” Carmody said. “He’s here and everything is new to him.”

The second part of that statement is not up for debate. So much of this is first year is foreign territory for Olah. And unlike the majority of first-year players, Olah’s played a major part in the Wildcats’ roster calculus from day one. Most freshmen, especially frontcourt players, need a year to develop, to lay a foundation for future success. Olah is being asked to play starters minutes right away. That is a difficult transition for any first-year center, not to mention one trying to digest the complexities of the Princeton offense.

As for Austin, the McDonald’s All-American did not escape Olah’s purview heading into Tuesday night’s matchup.

“I knew about Isaiah Austin when I was in high school,” Olah said. “I watched highlights of him on Youtube.”

There is a fine line between peer recognition and deferential respect, and Olah sound like he knows the difference. He didn’t fear or cower at Austin’s eye-popping athleticism and highlight-reel dunks as much as he did use them as motivation. Asked if he felt any nerves going up against Austin, Olah made no effort to hold back his bravado.

“I’m a freshman, he’s a freshman,” he said. “He’s 7-1, I’m 7-0. I have 50 pounds on him. He can knock down shots. He can dribble and drive. But he needs to put some muscle on if he wants to make the NBA.”

You would’ve been hard pressed to elicit that sort of confidence from Olah prior to Tuesday’s triumph. In consecutive losses to Maryland and UIC, Olah shot a combined 4-for-11 from the field for nine points and grabbed nine rebounds. At Baylor, he reached double-digit points (10) for the first time all season, not to mention snaring six boards and six assists.

The statistical improvement is plain, but the biggest difference Tuesday was Olah’s decisive play-making. In earlier games, Olah played with a certain level of insecurity on both ends of the floor. He passed up open shots, fearing that “coach would like for me to pass it.” He was insecure of his abilities to post up defenders. He feared being criticized by teammates. All of it came together Tuesday night.

“I came out, his a couple shots, helped on rebounds and just overall had a good game,” he said. “My teammates were very pleased with me."

One of those teammates, senior forward Drew Crawford, shared those sentiments. “He was working really hard,” he said. “That’s really big for him. When he’s got lots of energy, getting up and down the court, that’s when he helps us best.”

It is not inaccurate to characterize Olah’s individual season to date as a microcosm of his team’s collective progression. In both cases, the development hasn’t exactly been unidirectional. Neither Olah nor Northwestern is moving in a direct continuum of positive momentum.

In its two games heading into the Baylor matchup, Northwestern was soundly beaten on both ends of the floor. The offense wasn’t clicking. Defensive intensity was nonexistent. Fans were already lamenting the prospect of another NIT-bound season. Meanwhile, Olah was enduring a rough patch of his own, as were most of his teammates. It’s no coincidence that Olah’s best game coincided with the Wildcats’ best win.

As is the case with most breakout performances, it’s fair to question whether Olah’s performance is more sustainable, and less a positive blip in an otherwise tumultuous early part of the season. Carmody sees Olah’s maturation as a back-and-forth process; Positive steps will be interrupted with frustration and regression.

“It’s not unexpected to have a freshman come in there and be inconsistent,” Carmody said. “You try and bring him along, but it’s going to be at the pace it comes at.”

Having gone toe-to-toe with Austin and the rest of Baylor’s vaunted front line, Olah feels like he’s moving in the right direction. While he realizes his maturation is a work in progress, Olah expects games like Tuesday night to become part of his normal repertoire.

“I feel like I’m improving every day,” he said. “It was just a normal game for me.”

As Northwestern prepares for Saturday’s home date with Butler, a team with wins over North Carolina and Marquette and one of Northwestern’s toughest nonconference opponents, Olah knows which aspects of his game need the most improvement.

Probably the biggest hurdle is shot recognition. Olah wavers between shooting and passing to semi-open teammates, which often gives the impression he’s insecure with the basketball in his hands. According to Olah, that couldn’t be more inaccurate. Olah is still carving out his role in Carmody’s Princeton offense, so when he catches the ball in the paint or spots up around the elbow, Olah surveys his teammates to ensure he’s making the best decision.

“I still need to figure out when it’s my time to score,” he said. “If I see an open guy, I feel like I should pass it, and that coach would be happy with that too. But I know I need to shoot sometimes, too.”

Once he learns to trust his shot, it’s not unreasonable to foresee Olah’s growth process featuring less and less backward movement. By the sounds of it, Tuesday night was the realistic jolt he needed to realize his potential.

“I was very happy with how I played,” he said. “It gives me more confidence.”