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Northwestern Basketball Player Capsules: Alex Olah

The college basketball season is a dark place. From April to November, teams across the country revert into a hoops hibernation, shielded from media spotlight and mostly unavailable to the public eye in the same way as, say, football players are during spring practice. Things ramp up again over the summer, and a recent NCAA rule pushing the start of official practice back two weeks ensures teams will begin formal preseason preparations even earlier this season.

Those extra two weeks are a welcome development, but the college basketball season remains a distant entity, microscopically positioned in the most forward-looking reaches of our winter sports imaginations. We’re here to help you bridge the gap with some refresher-type player capsules. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be rolling out quick little offseason snapshots of each player, how they performed last season and what you can probably expect as the Wildcats prepare for new coach Chris Collins’ first season. So if you’re ever missing basketball, if you find yourself pining for what’s to come on the hardwood this winter, you have brief individual player breakdowns to hold you over.

There is a lot of time to fill during a college hoops offseason, and convenient exercises like these can expedite the process. 

Alex Olah

Stats to know (from 2012-13 unless indicated otherwise)

PPG: 6.1

MPG: 22.2

FG%: .415


Offensive rating: 88.8

Effective field goal%: 42.3

Usage rate: 21.8

%shots: 20.8

Past history

Not until last season did I learn the sheer polar emotional divisiveness a raw seven-foot freshmen center can prompt within a group of objective observers. Just as soon as someone was ready to endorse Olah’s potential and imposing frame and future prospects as an effective true center in a Big Ten (and national college basketball landscape, frankly) devoid of them, two others were screaming back and ripping off recriminations. Olah, a good basketball player with lots of potential? He’s too raw! He can’t even dunk!

The opinion on Olah was decidedly undecided for most of the season, and when you really dive into what he accomplished last season, it sort of makes sense. Olah improved at various points, but regressed just enough to undo those improvements; what you got, after a dispiriting first-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament, was a freshman season that felt like a net-neutral proposition, every progression accompanied by a disconcertingly offsetting regression. The analytic headaches Olah caused were interminably frustrating. It was infuriating.

Where he fits

Raw or not, Olah is imposing by virtue of his size alone, and Northwestern’s frontcourt doesn’t really have much else to work with, anyway. He’s almost guaranteed to start this season no matter how first-year coach Chris Collins decides to build his first Wildcats lineup.

Other frontcourt options include sophomore Mike Turner, senior Nikola Cerina and redshirt freshman Chier Ajou. None of those players can match what Olah provides on both ends of the floor, and they definitely can’t match his size, which gives Olah a built-in advantage against almost every opposing big man any time he takes the court. Few positions are more guaranteed coming into this uncertain season than Olah’s grip on a starting frontcourt spot. Until Northwestern can replenish the recruiting ranks with fresh low-block talent, Olah is here to stay, and start, and so he will again this season. 

What to expect

Your guess is as good as mine. If we’re being completely honest about it, I really don’t know what to expect from Olah, because all of his actions and movements are so very difficult to predict. One moment Olah is establishing position on the block and finishing with a nifty lay-up. Next time down the floor, he will do something bewilderingly awkward – like, I don’t know, refuse to dunk the ball from under the basket, or size up an 18-foot jump shot. His actions are so variably unpredictable that it’s almost impossible to hazard a guess on Olah’s second-year performance.

I have my hopes, and I would classify myself as an Olah optimist – the stargazing contingent of Northwestern hoops followers. You always hear about players crossing some mythologized developmental barrier after their freshman seasons, and I think that logic bears deeper discussion with Olah. He has the skills, the size – I saw it. I watched it. If he can take last season’s positives, focus on the good and cut out the egregiously bad, Olah has the chance to improve greatly this season. That at least sounds great – get better on all fronts, parse the good from the bad, become more consistent, less mercurial – and Olah just might find a way to eliminate all the countervailing inconsistencies that made him so perplexing last season. Maybe everything will just click. Or he could fall back into the bad habits, stagnate his offensive and defensive maturation and legitimize every lament cast his way last season.

Olah will probably end up falling somewhere in the middle. He’ll still offer his barrel of brow-furring moments, but unlike last season, Olah’s second year will feel more complete and forward-moving. Whereas last year’s good was almost always negated by a correspondingly bad, or worse, action, the ratio in 2013-14 will be a more tolerable mix of marginal improvements and confusing mistakes. Small steps, people.