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Nikola Cerina: Northwestern’s 'unsung hero' in win over Lewis

EVANSTON, Ill. — In Nikola Cerina’s 22 minutes of court time in Northwestern’s 57-46 exhibition win over Lewis, the forward didn’t record a single field goal attempt and had no assists. He went to the free-throw line four times, knocking down three of those attempts.

“I’ll tell you what,” a sweaty Chris Collins said after his first win as a head coach, “Niko was the unsung hero of the game.”

A hero with three points in 22 minutes?

Yes, Collins asserted.

“He gave us toughness. He gave us physicality,” Collins said.

For a program that, historically, has been missing those two key elements in frontcourt players, Cerina’s performance is a welcoming sign.

Cerina grabbed nine rebounds in his 22 minutes. He also impressed on the defensive end, looking quicker and more agile than last season.

In the first half, for example, Cerina leapt over to the strong side to stop a driving Lewis guard, forcing him to the baseline where he eventually stepped on the boundary. Then late in the second half, Cerina got caught defending a guard on the perimeter after he switched on a pick and roll. Cerina was able to keep the quicker guard in front of him, forcing a contested shot that rimmed out. Both of those instances were textbook cases of solid big-man defense.

Collins noted that Northwestern has a lot of what he calls “hybrid-type players.” By that he means players who don’t have a defined position. In particular, he mentioned Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, Sanjay Lumpkin, Nate Taphorn and Kale Abrahamson. Each of those players can really play any spot on the wing.

“The two guys who kind of have a definite role are our two-headed monster at center which were Alex [Olah] and Niko,” Collins said.

Early in the game, Olah got into foul trouble, forcing Cerina to come in off the bench. The two big men split minutes (Olah played 18) throughout the game, never getting the chance to operate alongside one another.

On paper, a lineup with both interior players seems to make sense. And down the road, Collins said, Northwestern may have to go to that lineup to matchup size-wise to teams with bigger frontlines.

But that illuminates another one of Northwestern’s chronic deficiencies: a lack of inside depth. After Cerina, Northwestern has only Aaron Liberman and Chier Ajou, both of whom are redshirt freshmen and largely developmental projects.

“The problem with that [lineup] is we’re really thin with big bodies,” Collins said. “There’ll be times when we’re playing really big, physical teams that they can play together. I think most of the time you’re going to see them splitting minutes.”

This frontcourt dilemma has created rebounding issues for Northwestern in past seasons. On Wednesday, though, wing players aided Cerina on the glass. Crawford and Lumpkin each recorded eight rebounds, while Cobb grabbed five and Taphorn had four. Ultimately, Northwestern outrebounded Lewis 42-35.

Cerina set the tone for Northwestern early as he recorded eight of his nine rebounds in his 13 first-half minutes.

“There’s no way we would have won without Niko’s presence,” Collins said.

And moving forward, it’s hard to see a way Northwestern will continue to win without that half of their “two-headed monster.”