Coming into the 2014/15 season, one of the main reasons for any optimism surrounding Northwestern basketball was the late 2013/14 emergence of Alex Olah. The big Romanian wasn't great, but he took massive strides in his sophomore season, and was far more assertive than he had been as a freshman.
Over the offseason, I explored how Olah's game grew as his confidence did. He went from being described as shy and quiet to self-identifying as "kind of a celebrity."
But confidence can be a fickle thing. Despite being better last year, Olah was still inconsistent. We accepted the inconsistency because we had never seen the good end of it before. We welcomed the improved performances because they surprisingly surpassed expectations.
But once we got a taste of the good, we came to expect it every game. So now, the inconsistency is maddening.
Part of it is on Olah. Chris Collins described the big man's play as "timid" on Tuesday against Rutgers. On one play in the second half when he did finally make a strong move in the post, he got this greeting from JerShon Cobb:
Bryant McIntosh put Cobb's reaction into words after the game. "He's one of our best players, and he has to be aggressive," McIntosh said. "That's one way we don't go on 11-minute droughts, if he's aggressive and we get him the ball in the paint. That's a high percentage shot."
But perhaps more importantly, his underuse was criminal. The one stat that stands out is that Olah didn't even attempt a two-point field goal in his 32 minutes of action. He attempted two from deep, and on the only move he made towards the basket, that aforementioned play, he was fouled.
Without Olah as a presence, Northwestern's offense was putrid. It's becoming increasingly clear that the Wildcats need to involve Olah more.
McIntosh admits that too. "I think we can do a better job of getting him the ball, especially in his spots," McIntosh said. "We've got to get him in lower position, and he has to work for it and demand the ball, but we also have to focus on getting him the ball in the right places."
Just how much has Northwestern gone away from Olah?
I went back and documented every half-court possession for which Olah was on the floor from two games: Tuesday's game at Rutgers, and last year's game against Indiana in which both NU and Olah were fairly average offensively.
First of all, here is a comparison of how much Olah was involved in the offense using the incredibly advance metric (sarcasm) "touches." This is literally the amount of possessions on which he touched the ball and the amount of possessions on which he didn't.
Note: I counted offensive rebounds as new possessions, and any play where Northwestern was fouled on the floor making a move to the basket as a new possession. I did not count any fast break on which Olah couldn't have realistically gotten the ball.
|Possessions with at least one touch||Possessions with no touch||Possessions with multiple touches|
|vs. Rutgers, Dec. 30, 2014||18||23||2|
|vs. Indiana, Jan. 17, 2014||30||23||6|
Next, let's look at where Olah was touching the ball. This is the set of data that is most alarming.
Note: Post touches are any back-to-the-backet touch within 15 feet of the basket, and any foul-line touch against a zone. At-the-basket touches are offensive rebounds or passes from teammates in a position to immediately go up for a layup.
|Perimeter touches||Post touches||At-the-basket touches|
|vs. Rutgers, Dec. 30, 2014||15||5||0|
|vs. Indiana, Jan. 18, 2014||19||13||4|
Totalling five combined touches within roughly 15 feet of the basket the entire game is stunning, and simply inexcusable. Even if Olah is taking a higher percentage of his team's shots this year than last, his involvement in the offense is waning
Olah spent a ton of time against Rutgers away from the basket. That's one of the reasons he failed to grab a single offensive rebound, and it's one of the reasons he - and Northwestern's offense as a whole - was so ineffective. Part of this surely is his own fault, but it seems that Collins has ventured away from running his offense through his 7-footer. Against Rutgers, Olah was primarily used as a screener and a handoff guy on the perimeter. That's a role anybody can play, and it's a role that renders many of Olah's talents irrelevant.
Olah was by no means dominant in the Indiana game - he scored 8 points on 2-9 shooting - but what he did do was open things up for Northwestern. When NU plays through him, especially in the post, spacing is better and open looks are plentiful. The Wildcats only scored 0.84 points per possession, but got plenty of open shots and just didn't knock them down. They certainly didn't go on a 10-minute drought like they did against Rutgers.
Part of the explanation for Tuesday's performance is Rutgers' approach. Coach Eddie Jordan said after the game that the most important aspect of his gameplan was taking away Olah. But if teams can take Olah away so easily and successfully, that is exactly what's so alarming. If that's all that is required to send the Wildcats into prolonged droughts like Tuesday's, they're in a lot of trouble moving forward.