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Offseason Musings: Who Will Be Northwestern's No. 2 Big Man This Season?

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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From what I can tell, the collective appraisal of Northwestern’s upcoming basketball season, Chris Collins’ first as head coach, is decidedly mixed. I’ve heard some make the case the Wildcats should and will make the NCAA Tournament. Another less-bullish group sees an undercooked second unit, a rusty duo of veteran floor leaders and a flawed frontcourt.

All of those contentions are worth addressing between now and the start of the season. I’d like to narrow the discussion to the last one, Northwestern’s big man situation, and then I’d like to end that discussion and chop it down some more. Northwestern’s frontcourt fortunes, you see, are inextricably fastened to Alex Olah’s maturation and second-year progression. If Olah underperforms, Northwestern will get manhandled on the low block, plain and simple. That part of the discussion is pretty cut-and-dry; you know what’ll happen if Olah can’t make the essential sophomore leap, if he can’t find some level of consistency in converting post-up attempts, if his rebounding continues to lag behind what his hulking frame should provide and the like and so on and so forth.

The issue Northwestern needs to resolve – and resolve quickly, for the sake of entering the most challenging spots of its nonconference season with a manageable inside-out attack – is deciphering who will step up as the No. 2 big man.

Candidates include Mike Turner, Nikola Cerina, Chier Ajou and Aaron Liberman. Ajou and Liberman redshirted last season, and I have no evidence to suggest either of them is ready to step in and fortify the Wildcats’ questionable backcourt. I could be wrong, and perhaps I will be, but for the time being, let’s refrain from making that rather gigantic illusory leap and focus on Turner and Cerina.

After Olah, Turner was the next highest-used true big man (Jared Swopshire was a stretchy perimeter-happy slasher) on Northwestern’s roster (he played 39.2 percent of available minutes, according to Ken Pomeroy’s accounting), and he should see more floortime this season. His offensive numbers (87.3 offensive rating, 38.0 effective field goal percentage, 39.8 true shooting percentage) don’t offer much reason for optimism, but when he is, literally, the next best thing, or the next-most experienced, you kind of have to ignore the low-minutes totals and offensive inefficiency and defensive matchup problems and say, “hey, dude was a redshirt freshman. He’ll improve, you watch!” How much, if at all, Turner does repair some of the uglier aspects of his 2012 self, will either help him or deter him from occupying Northwestern’s secondary big man spot.

In Cerina, a senior transfer from TCU, Northwestern has a flashingly-effective – Cerina’s practice performances would have you fooled – and marginally athletic talent. Part of the problem last season, and one of the biggest reasons why I’m leery of Cerina’s ability to produce for the breadth of an entire season, is his recurrent ankle issues. When Cerina played last season, his injured ankle held him back almost every time he took the floor, and when I checked in with him this offseason – after seeing him crutching his way down Sherman Avenue – I learned Cerina had undergone surgery on the same ailing ankle. I don’t know the specifics of Cerina’s injury, and we can only hope he’ll be ready to go by the start of the season, but do you want to bank Northwestern’s No. 2 big man slot on a thus-far-injury-riddled transfer forward, who averaged just 6.5 minutes, 1.2 points and shot 40 percent from the field last season?

If Turner, Ajou and Liberman are the only alternatives, then yes, you overlook Cerina’s injury-laden past and erratic offensive decision-making and hope for the best. Truth is, Northwestern may not need either Turner or Cerina to log significant minutes or average double-digits this season; Collins has said he plans to devise a system that accentuates Northwestern’s roster strengths and cloaks its weaknesses; which, as this exercise made abundantly clear, counts frontcourt depth as the foremost item of offseason concern.

I watched Turner play last season, everyone did, and what I saw was a tough and objectively instinctual but physically limited player – too small and slight to handle powerful forwards, but not quick enough to check agile 3-4 hybrids away from the basket. Cerina’s first season didn’t bring its expected athletic and rebounding returns, but his inefficiency and inability to integrate himself into Northwestern’s big man rotation can be explained away (at least partially) by injury.

The uncertainty of not being able to gauge what a healthy version of Cerina will look like for an entire season – what he’s capable of on the offensive end, if he can guard bigger frontcourt threats, if he’s merely an energetic rim-running spark plug – is the basic rationale behind my decision. Think of this decision more as an exclusionary must, than an assertively willing selection, because neither of these guys has demonstrated the capacity to compete with opposing Big Ten big men on both ends of the floor for extended stretches. I’m choosing Cerina because I’m not choosing Turner – that’s the least critical way to frame the physiological tenor of my choice, I think.

I’m hopeful Cerina can get healthy, turn things around and become the first-off-the-bench frontcourt piece Northwestern needs him to be. Predictions are never perfect, and this one feels less credible than most.