“We’ve found ourselves; our identity.”
Those were the words of Northwestern coach Chris Collins after an unforeseen 54-47 win over Indiana at Assembly Hall Saturday.
Collins went on to talk about his team’s defense, their grit and their commitment. And these aspects have been crucial in Northwestern winning two of their past three games.
But Northwestern would be 0-6 in the Big Ten right now if it weren’t for the sophomore class: Kale Abrahamson, Alex Olah, and most of all, Tre Demps.
When the season began, there were many narratives and storylines. Chris Collins’ beginning his reign at NU was the biggest of all. Then there was Drew Crawford returning to school for one final year to be a part of the new era. There was Dave Sobolewski potentially emerging as a team leader; and JerShon Cobb reacquainting himself with the court after a year on the sidelines.
But one of the things people love about sports is the unpredictable. And the emergence of Tre Demps falls into that category. Once derided for taking – or more accurately, missing – a lot of shots, Demps has made as many clutch plays over the past week as any player in the Big Ten.
Asked after the game if he liked pressure, Demps responded like someone who, well, likes pressure. “Yeah,” he said coolly. But the more emphatic answer came 30 minutes earlier on the court.
For the second time in seven days, Demps was a man amongst boys in the game’s latter stages. “Tre Demps was tremendous down the stretch,” Collins said. He once again hit two huge threes just as it seemed NU’s opponents were on the cusp of breaking through and snatching control of the game away from the Wildcats.
Demps will be the first to tell you that he wasn’t at his best in the first half. “He got off to a tough start,” Collins said. But that only accentuated Demps’ exploits after the interval. “For him to then make his last 5 or 6 shots, it shows about his confidence level,” Collins said.
What Collins was referring to was maybe the most important sequence of the season so far. Down by three with under seven minutes remaining, Demps knocked in a three to knot up the score at 38. Then with just over four minutes left, he scored on four consecutive possessions, the fourth bucket, a smooth step-back jumper, putting the Wildcats up 47-40 with 1:23 on the clock. Demps scored 13 consecutive Northwestern points in a span that stretched into the final minute of the game. He was gutsy, composed, and of course, clutch.
Collins also lauded Demps for his work ethic. “He’s in the gym late at night, he comes early; there’s no one on our team who wants to be a good player more than Tre,” Collins said. Demps has morphed from a high-volume shooter into a high-volume scorer, and has arguably established himself as Northwestern’s most impactful offensive player.
But just as surprising as Demps’ rise has been the following: that Alex Olah is one of Demps’ major rivals for that title.
Collins had similar praise for his seven-foot center. “What I like is that he’s playing really confident,” Collins said of Olah. “He got knocked around last year. It’s taken him some time to get his confidence, and figure out how he can be successful with the skillset that he has, and I’m really proud of the way he’s playing.”
What’s been more evident than ever since the start of Big Ten play has been Northwestern’s emphasis on getting the ball inside. NU’s and Collins’ offense needs a post presence to be successful. And while it hasn’t yet really been successful, it would be even more inefficient without Olah.
“We have to,” Collins asserted when asked about getting the ball inside. “The coaches and the players in this league are so good, it’s hard to score. [Opponents] are doing a good job with Drew and JerShon, so we’ve gotta be able to throw the ball inside.” And Olah’s improvement has given Northwestern that option.
Olah has also shown considerable progress on the defensive end. Early this season, he was a liability defensively, one who seemingly played with sand in his shoes and shirked physical contact when at all possible. On Saturday, he blocked six shots – SIX – and played admirable defense, much of it against a potential future lottery pick, Indiana’s Noah Vonleh.
“I’m learning,” Olah said. And he’s doing so to a higher degree than most people would’ve expected.
The third piece to the puzzle, and the third member of the sophomore class, is Abrahamson. And while the 6-7 forward hasn’t been as influential as his classmates, he played a meaningful role in NU’s win in Bloomington on Saturday.
“Kale gave us big minutes,” Collins said. Abrahamson scored nine points, all in the first half, including a vital three-pointer (one of his three on the day) right before the break to give Northwestern a halftime lead.
After spending significant time on the bench during non-conference play, Abrahamson was handed Sobolewski’s starting spot when the junior guard went down with a concussion. He hasn’t looked back, and his length has been a key facet of Northwestern’s improved defense.
Collectively, the three sophomores are the story of the season. On Saturday, the grand stage of spectacular, historic Assembly Hall presented itself, and all three responded to the challenge it presented in stoic fashion.
It became clear back in November and December that this season would involve a lot of looking forward to next year and beyond. Much has been made of next year’s recruiting class. But the happenings of the past week have been just as promising.
“We’re trying to build a program,” Collins said after the game; and Demps, Olah and Abrahamson are integral pieces of the construction project.