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Northwestern gets Alex Olah involved in win over SIU Edwardsville

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David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Seven games into Northwestern's 2015-16, its offense had been impressive. The Wildcats were nearly a top-50 team nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, and had gotten off to a 6-1 start in large part due to their scoring.

However, Northwestern's offense had also been somewhat one-dimensional, meaning it hadn't reached its full potential. It had been extremely guard-oriented through seven games. In fact, coming into the game, center Alex Olah's shot rate — the percentage of his team's shots while he is on the floor that he takes — was only the sixth-highest on the team, at 16.5 percent. That was significantly lower than last year, when Olah's rate was up at 23.1, third on the team and only 0.2 percentage points behind guard Bryant McIntosh's rate.

Saturday, in an 81-56 victory over SIU Edwardsville, the Wildcats made a concerted effort to get the ball to Olah in the post.

"He'd had a couple games where I thought his defense was good, but we hadn't established him as a scorer down on the block," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said after the game. But prior to Saturday's contest, Collins had a feeling that would change.

"We kind of both felt it before the game," Olah said. "Yesterday, he said, ‘This is the night... this is the night where you break through."

And that's exactly what Olah did. The big Romanian scored 12 of his 21 points in just 12 first-half minutes, and finished the day 9-15 from the field. By the end of the contest, his usage rate was 39.27 percent, the highest on the team. After the efficient start, the Wildcats kept going back to the big man, allowing Northwestern to pull away from the Cougars.

Part of the reason Northwestern was able to do so was his size advantage. But what made his usage impressive was that NU got him the ball in a variety of ways. Some of those ways were scripted; others weren't.

Early on, Olah used his size to great effect. At times during his Northwestern career, the 7-footer has been timid even when matched up with smaller players. But here, against SIUE's 6-foot-8 center Yemi Makanjuola, he looked aggressive:

"A lot of times we run the first play to try to get him the ball," Collins said. "We did, and he scored, which was huge. He loses confidence sometimes offensively. He has his whole career. That's who he is. I thought the last couple games, he's lost a little bit of his confidence offensively. To see him see the ball go in, especially in that first half, I saw him back to being the Alex that we need."

After getting the first bucket, Olah was rolling. A couple minutes later, he again used his body, but this time in transition:

Olah also had success against SIU Edwardsville's zone. "We felt like, if they did go to their zone, we would be able to overload a side and get some mismatches down low," Collins said postgame, and that's exactly what Northwestern did.

Here, Olah sneaks behind the back-end of the zone with the ball at the top of the key, and as Northwestern swings it, he creates even more space in behind the zone by using his body:

But Northwestern also designed plays to get Olah the ball close to the basket. "We really wanted to establish him," Collins said. Here, out of a timeout, Bryant McIntosh sets a back screen to get Olah to the near-side block. Demps' entry pass is a little late, but Olah still receives the ball in great position:

One of the other areas in which Olah seemed far more comfortable Saturday was in pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll situations.

"I know BMac can pass the ball, that pocket pass," Olah said of his increasing comfort in pick-and-roll situations. "Tre can pass the ball... And I'm more comfortable. I know I can have a shot. I know I can go to the basket. I know I can have a skip pass."

Olah showed it Saturday:

Saturday isn't the first time Collins has talked about Olah's confidence. A few early buckets can get him going, and raise his level of play. And when he is involved, he not only becomes more efficient, but his activity level increases. That's one of the reasons he was so effective Saturday. Olah's understanding of how to use his body was excellent, and his movement was as incisive as a 7-foot, 270-pound center's can be. Collins and Northwestern were also able to engender or even manufacture that confidence, which allowed Olah to put up 21 points in just 23 minutes of action and carry Northwestern to a comfortable win.