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Rebounding, Centers Key for Northwestern Against Minnesota

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

When you have freshmen on your team, you’re going to have to endure some growing pains. So when Northwestern freshman center Alex Olah struggled against Indiana and the Hoosiers’ star center, Cody Zeller, it wasn’t exactly a shock.

Olah had just 1 rebound and 4 points, while Zeller had 13 rebounds and 21 points.

“(Olah’s) young and he’s got to learn, and that’s part of it,” coach Bill Carmody said. “He’s going against probably a top 5 pick in the NBA Draft this year (in Zeller), so 13-to-1 is going to happen sometimes; you just don’t want it to happen too often.”

The problem for NU is that it’s been happening too often this year. Carmody has made a point of saying Olah and fellow freshman Mike Turner need to be more aggressive on the boards, especially in a league with such talented frontcourts. That will be true again on Wednesday against Minnesota.

The Gophers rank No. 1 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 47.9 percent. That means they get a second chance opportunity nearly every other time down the floor. NU, meanwhile, ranks No. 299 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and No. 233 in keeping its opponents off the offensive boards.

“They crash the offensive boards, so that’s so important to us,” Carmody said. “And not letting them get out on the break — I think our defense, our transition defense, is very important in this game.”

In NU’s last game against Minnesota earlier this month, the Wildcats were out-rebounded 45-to-20, including 20-to-8 on the offensive boards. NU was able to keep it close at halftime, going into the break down just 17-14. However, the Gophers were able to get in transition in the second half and exploded for 54 points en route to a blowout.

Despite the struggles in the second half, that game provided some hope for NU. The Wildcats were down by just three at halftime even though they shot poorly. Now they’re shooting better, which can keep them in the game provided they keep Minnesota out of transition.

NU also has a newfound weapon that can help with the rebounding and scoring woes. Jared Swopshire has been invisible for much of the season, but he’s stepped up in the past week to give his team a boost.

“(Swophire) seems like he’s not floating out there,” Carmody said. “He’s starting to realize his role here. He’s got to be one of the guys. He’s not like a complimentary player — he’s one of the guys out there that has to produce for us to do well.”

He has certainly produced over the last two games. He had 12 points and 6 rebounds in a win over Illinois and 13 points and 8 rebounds in the loss to Indiana. In the second half of the Indiana game, particularly, he was extremely active on both ends of the floor and frustrated the Hoosiers as a piece of the 1-3-1 zone. He’s also starting to hit big shots, which is key for a team low on shooters

“I think it was my best week, personally,” Swopshire said. “And also as a team I think it was our best week, as far as being aggressive and kind of getting things put together. So I think it was a great effort.”

Swopshire can make up for some of the rebounding gap against Minnesota if he continues to be aggressive, but he can’t do it alone. Simply put, the centers must have their best game of the season to beat the Gophers. One rebound from Olah and Turner combined wasn’t enough against Indiana, and it certainly won’t be against Minnesota.

“If you only get one rebound from the center position, it’s trouble,” Carmody said. “There wasn’t any one thing in particular, but I just know that you’ve got to go after the ball more aggressively.”