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Introducing Offseason Musings: How Will Northwestern Center Alex Olah Develop?

Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.

Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.

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When Northwestern players weren’t a) injured or b) getting run off the court by a vastly superior team, probably the two most frequent occurrences of the Wildcats’ dismal 2012-13 season, individual development – particularly from younger players – was maybe the most noteworthy season-long trendline to follow. Once the Wildcats lost Drew Crawford in December, and it became all too clear all to quickly the Wildcats couldn’t keep up in the most competitive league in the country, we turned to the future.

We began looking at the youthful building blocks that would constitute Northwestern’s next Tournament-hopeful outfit – which in this case, even after a coaching change, just so happens to be one year later. Believe it or not, Northwestern does have legitimate reasons to believe it can at least compete for a program-first NCAA Tournament birth in 2013-14, and a large part of whether that goal will be even marginally practical this fall will come down to the progress made by the same young and developing players identified last season.

Easily the most puzzling, the most consistently head-scratching, was center Alex Olah. Watch Olah get off the bus, and you’re immediately struck by a large – not just tall, but large – seven-foot, 275-pound frame. In select stretches, Olah can be great; he flashes the post, facilitates crisp bounce passes on backdoor cuts, even deploys a nifty post move every now and again. In those moments, it’s all too easy to become enamored with Olah’s potential, to start thinking about what a skilled true seven-footer could accomplish on this team in today’s college game.

Just as often Olah leaves the impression he’s only barely drilled in basic post operation and back-to-basket offensive work. Establishing post position typically isn’t the issue. It’s catching (crazy though that elementary physical action may be), turning and producing a quality shot attempt that makes Olah do confusing and unproductive things with the ball in his hands. If not that, then it’s prohibitively deliberate high-or-low-post decision-making, or inattentive rim protection, or unsuspecting mid-range jump shots that almost always fall terribly and embarrassingly off-line.

The two sides of Olah’s game are equal parts inspiring and frustrating. But as Northwestern moves into the Chris Collins era, Olah is one of the few big men that who can not only fit, but thrive in a potential Collins rotation – whatever the positional specifics of his lineup may look like.

No matter how Collins plans to use him – in a traditional, paint-hounding, stationary context; as an active interior prowler; flexibly and completely unpredictably – Olah needs to become more consistent. He needs to show his skills are controllably beneficial, that he doesn’t need to hit the gameday mindset lottery to bring the right sense of focus and physical acuity to play an engaged 40-minute basketball game. Because if Olah is truly locked-in, as was the case in games against Stanford and Michigan State last season, the Wildcats have a skills-to-size mismatch few teams can reasonably counter.

Versatile seven-foot centers are difficult covers in the professional ranks; in college, they are an opposing coaches’ nightmare (sometimes not even recruiting imperatives can prepare you for the sheer physical predicament posed by a gargantuan human being). If Olah can turn last season’s sporadically effective performance into a more continuous sample of concerted two-way play, and the Wildcats have a real interior component to complement Drew Crawford and JerShonn Cobb on the perimeter, the rough contours of a potentially balanced and productive offensive dynamic can be stationed and built around to form an interesting, if Tournament-buoyant, lineup. Which isn’t to say Olah’s emergence automatically promises an NCAA birth – his consistent growth would be a very important piece of the puzzle, though.