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Northwestern Basketball Player Capsules: Nikola Cerina

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. 

Nikola Cerina

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

PPG: 1.2

MPG: 6.4

FG%: .400

Past history

Going through Cerina’s entire collegiate basketball history demands a review of his time at TCU, which included two seasons, more than 35 games started, a double-digit rebound (11) game against Utah on February 22, 2011 and a 17-point effort four days later against New Mexico. Cerina transferred following that 2010-11 season, and his first year as a Wildcat didn’t go as smoothly as he or anyone else may have liked.

A nagging ankle injury kept Cerina out for 16 games last season, and that’s without getting into the games he was forced to either leave prematurely, or play at less than full health. The final product was unflattering numerically, and even more underwhelming visually: Cerina was never able to establish himself as an effectively reliable low-post presence. Whether we can attribute his poor form to injuries exclusively, or if he simply couldn’t figure out Bill Carmody’s Princeton offense, are important questions to ask, but turning the page on a new season with a new coach should help him stash his regrettable first season in a dark and irredeemable crevice of his basketball-related memory bank.

Where he fits

A new coach and a glaring vat of frontcourt depth means Cerina’s development, and his inability to recover from said ankle injury – which he had surgery on this offseason – stands as one of the five or so most important individual personnel developments heading into this season. Northwestern’s frontcourt is so thin, and so unproven, that Alex Olah, a mercurial and only intermittently effective player in his own right, is the onlyforward contributor the Wildcats can rightfully count on for two-way production in 2013.

There is a huge need for reserve big help, and if Cerina shows he can, at minimum, run the floor and crash the glass and convert around the rim, he could instantly become one of Northwestern’s most important bench assets or – and this is sort of a huge stretch, but bear with me – even a potential starter, should new coach Chris Collins elect to configure a conventional two-forward lineup. Besides Olah, there is sophomore Mike Turner, redshirt freshman Chier Ajou, walkon Aaron Liberman and Cerina; which might as well by synonymous with, “Cerina will get as much floortime as his balky ankle and semi-uncertain skill set allows.”

What to expect

If his rehabilitation process goes well, and Cerina is at full strength by the start of the season, I expect him to challenge Turner for frontcourt minutes, and potentially become Northwestern’s No. 2 big man option. Olah is the Wildcats’ only frontcourt guarantee, and a dangerously fickle one at that. For his part, Cerina remains a mostly unknown entity – thing is, we haven’t seen him at full strength for a sample size that would allow for a truly comprehensive analysis of his strengths and weaknesses – but his history at TCU, combined with some occasionally encouraging practice performances, offer hope for improvement.

Hoping for positive strides and using pre-transfer performance as a baseline for what a healthy Cerina season should look like are completely different from actually knowing what to expect, and to be perfectly honest, I have no idea. Maybe Cerina will put it together under Collins, have everything suddenly click with a healthy ankle and a new system. Or maybe the Princeton offense was the primary reason he transferred in the first place – at a practice two seasons ago, Cerina told me the passing and meticulous ball movement required of forwards in the Princeton were integral parts of his European-style formative basketball development. Cerina’s second-year post-transfer should go better than his first; by sheer injury recovery-enabled mobility, how could it not? Cerina can and should step into more minutes and produce more points and rebounds and actively effective defense than he did last season. Sometimes predictions are vague and incomplete. By necessity, this one almost has to be.