by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
On a night when Michigan shot 60 percent from the floor, connected on 59 percent of its three point attempts, staged a one-man tour de force for point guard Trey Burke and summarily trounced Northwestern in every respect from the opening tip, one must dig through piles of unflattering statistics and empirical observations to unearth something positive. The Wildcats, playing without Reggie Hearn, Nikola Cerina and Sanjay Lumpkin – as if Drew Crawford and JerShonn Cobb’s absences weren’t damaging enough on their own merits – were undermanned. But even if Northwestern had its best lineup on the floor, it didn’t stand a chance against the dominant force it faced last night.
The Big Ten opener didn’t leave the impression of a competitive, even semi-viable entity in this year’s loaded Big Ten. It did allow for coach Bill Carmody to extend more playing time to freshmen. Alex Olah has played significant minutes all season, and he logged another 28 on Thursday. Kale Abrahamson is one of the few able-bodied perimeter pieces Carmody has left, and he too, got 28 minutes of floor time. The two true freshman’s efforts were what stuck out on a night of overwhelming dejection and disappointment.
The gradual development of Olah has been marked by inconsistency and growing pains. Over 14 games, the Romianian center made considerable progress both offensively and defensively – only to revert to old tendencies soon thereafter. The key with Olah is developing a baseline of consistency, and hovering above that level for the rest of the season. Last night’s performance was not a breakout effort by any means, nor was it his best game of the season. It was a continuation of the progress he made in the Brown game, where Olah was noticeably more proactive and intelligent with his movements on both ends of the floor.
And this time, he was doing it against one of the best teams in the country. Olah was clearly the focus of Northwestern’s offensive attack. His team-high usage rate of 49 percent eclipsed every teammate by more than 20 percent (Tre Demps’ 27 percent rate was the second-highest mark), and the Wildcats consistently worked through Olah in the high post both as a facilitator and a back-to-the-basket scoring option. On a superficial level, his counting statistics (10 points on 4-for-8 shooting, five assists) aren’t exactly worthy of high praise, but if you watched Olah’s calculated movements, the way he found space in between Michigan’s defenders, his nimble footwork in the post, the way he settled into optimal scoring angles and worked to establish preferable post position – all of it spoke to a player who’s made considerable strides since the beginning of the season. It’s totally possible Olah could undo his progress in upcoming games, but it was encouraging, if anything else, to see him put together a complete effort against formidable opposition.
Another first-year who didn’t shy from the moment was Abrahamson. Like Olah, Abrahamson was not perfect. He labored defensively against dynamic guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and launched a host of wild shots. He also gave the Wildcats exactly what they needed: a confident long-range shooter. Abrahamson connected on just 2-of-6 from long range, but in stark contrast from earlier games, he was neither hesitant nor skittish about pulling the trigger. And when your skill set is as singularly focused as Abrahamson’s – when at his best, Abrahamson makes shots; that’s what he does – there’s no use in holding back your best asset.
Abrahamson let loose on six occasions from downtown and just twice from inside the arc. His shots weren’t falling as much as he may have liked, but Abrahamson at the very least showed he realizes his limitations, and is willing to adjust his shot attempts accordingly. Abrahamson is converting 35 percent of his threes. That’s not a terrible percentage. It’s also well below Abrahamson’s long-range ceiling. As long as he continues to accumulate enough attempts, his make rate will trend upwards. Abrahamson is a very good three-point shooter. In previous games, he was reluctant to exercise that obvious strength. Against Michigan, he shot the ball with confidence. Even if he wasn’t hitting at an efficient rate, that Abrahamson appears to have lifted whatever self-imposed shooting restriction limited him earlier this season is an encouraging development.
Thursday night’s obliteration was not an enormous surprise. Michigan has the look of a national championship contender. Northwestern was overmatched. Until the Wildcats start to more closely resemble their regular rotation – i.e. when Cerina and Hearn return to action – they’re going to come upon better-equipped, athletically-advantaged, more-talented teams. And they’re probably going to lose more games than they win. That is life in today’s Big Ten. But it is hard not to watch Olah, Abrahamson (and even redshirt freshman Mike Turner, to a lesser degree) and come away impressed with their progress. Foist into unexpectedly prominent roles against superior opponents, Northwestern’s youth is showing signs of the valuable assets they can be both later this season and in future years.
It does not look like Northwestern can push for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament this season. As such, it is better to search for promising signs of future value. Abrahamson and Olah are being asked to do more than what was expected at the beginning of the season, and they are meeting the challenge in stride. I don’t know whether their performances will amount to a large number of conference wins, or even an NIT berth. What I do know is that these confidence-building performances can have a snowballing effect that leads to greater future development.