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Alex Olah is secretly Northwestern's best player

Your eyes are lying to you.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

If you've attended a Northwestern basketball game this year (or really, at any point in the past few years), it's likely that you've yelled something to the effect of "dammit Olah, how do you miss that?" The tendency of NU's center to miss maddeningly easy shots, and his issues hauling in rebounds in traffic have a lot of people giving up on the big man.

But Wednesday against Illinois, good Olah showed up. He finished with a remarkable stat line of 14 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks, and he out-played Illinois center Nnanna Egwu, who finished with just six points and four rebounds.

Sure, Olah hasn't played like that consistently, but behind the missed lay-ups is a guy who is actually probably the Wildcats' best player when you consider usage, offense and defense — better than Tre Demps and better than Bryant McIntosh.

Of course, most NU fans would say that Demps and McIntosh have been better this year, but that's partly where the "eye test" leads us astray. When a guard takes a bad shot and misses, we forgive it. When a center misses a lay-up, we let that skew our view of the player far more. But just looking at the bare-bones advanced stats, Olah has actually been a more effective offensive player, according to Ken Pom:

Player Usage Rate Offensive Rating eFG% True Shooting %
Bryant McIntosh 25.0 99.4 48.6 52.8
Tre Demps 23.4 99.6 44.9 46.7
Alex Olah 22.4 105.0 49.6 55.1

Olah is effective because not only does he shoot decently from the floor, but he also does a very good job of getting to the free throw line. He ranks 176th nationally with a free throw rate — basically, how often you get to the line — of 54.8 (McIntosh has a FT Rate of 23.3, while Demps has one of 19.1), and he makes his free throws when he gets there, coming in at 72.5 percent.

Admittedly, Olah has some issues in the post. Part of it is a fundamentals issue. He continually brings the ball down below his waist, making it easy for defenders to block or alter his shot, and even in some of his impressive post plays against Illinois, he was lucky to have gotten a good shot off.

But there's actually a decent solution. Despite the little credit he gets for his athleticism, NU's big man is very good coming off cuts and high screens. The data from Synergy Sports shows that's where he needs to become more involved:

Play % of time PPP
Post 37.30% 0.746
P&R Roll Man 18.30% 0.935
Cut 14.20% 1.208

Olah is able to get open shots on pick-and-rolls and off cuts because of his ability as an outside shooter. He's not a great shooter by any means, but he's good enough (and takes enough shots) that opponents need to respect that part of his game. In the second half against Michigan State, Olah was very successful on pick-and-rolls and cuts, and Spartans coach Tom Izzo noted that his success was due to MSU knowing they needed to cover him closely on the perimeter.

If NU can incorporate more of that into its gameplans, Olah's already above average offensive arsenal will improve. That's a necessity, because Collins needs him out there on defense.

While Olah sometimes gets flack for his rebounding — again, not really fair, since his defensive rebounding percentage of 21.6 is the highest on the team and ranks 113th nationally — his defense, particularly in the post, has been very good.

Play % of Time PPP allowed Percentile eFG%
Overall N/A 0.718 74 34.50%
Post 35.90% 0.324 98 18.50%
Spot up 23.30% 0.792 66 41.30%
P&R Roll Man 21.40% 0.864 42 50%

Opponents are making just .324 points per possession against the thing Olah does most. Egwu and Maverick Morgan's performance against Olah on Wednesday — a combined 3-for-8 shooting, six points and a turnover — was pretty bad, but it was actually a good performance, compared to how others have done against him.

All basketball players have their imperfections, and it's been well-documented that NU isn't working with any future NBA stars. But when you look past the missed lay-ups and the occasional bad game, Olah is actually Northwestern's best player, and he can be even better if he used right on offense.

Your eyes can tell you a lot of things, but in this case, they're probably lying to you.