When it was announced that Alex Olah was out indefinitely with a fracture in his foot, Northwestern lost the anchor to its defense. Sure, he's not the most mobile big man around, but his mere (massive) body makes finishing at the rim far from easy for opponents. Dererk Pardon and Joey van Zegeren have done their best to fill the void, but their lack of offensive prowess has stagnated movement on that end and has made things more difficult for Northwestern's perimeter players. It's on that side of the ball that Olah's absence has been felt most profoundly.
Northwestern's three-point explosion against Minnesota was a byproduct of the Gophers' decision to play a two-three matchup zone, which freed up wings to create needed separation. But in the two games prior—losses to Maryland and Ohio State, respectively—Northwestern shot a combined 8 of 45 from deep. That's a putrid 17 percent.
The offense before Olah's injury
Olah's last game was an excellent one. Against Sacred Heart, the big man put up a team-high 21 points on 8 of 10 from the field and 5 of 6 from the line, while also notching 5 rebounds. Olah's size forced Sacred Heart to collapse on him when he got the ball in the post. And even when they did, he was able to shoot over his defenders and showcase his soft touch, like on this possession early on. His ability to score pressured Sacred Heart to continue to double him.
Sacred Heart's Cane Broomer (No. 1), who scored 26 in the game, comes over for a double team, but he gives up a full foot to Olah who is impervious of his presence.
But his own scoring wasn't his only positive affect on the last healthy game he played; Olah asserted himself early, which prevented Sacred Heart from being able to stick to shooters the way Ohio State and Maryland did.
Bryant McIntosh dribbles to his right, toward Tre Demps for a routine hand-off. However, Demps' defender, the aforementioned Broomer, is concerned about a quick entry pass to Olah. His hesitation is only slight, but it forces him to go under McIntosh and gives Demps the space he needs to fire an quick three that finds nothing but net.
Yes, Sacred Heart is a bad basketball team. But Olah's presence is a factor even against much better teams.
In this first-half possession against North Carolina, Demps brings the ball up the court and sets up a high screen-and-roll with Olah.
North Carolina's defensive strategy here is for Joel Berry III (No. 2) to bump Olah and hinder his roll to the basket while Joel James (No. 42) steps out high to prevent a Demps three. But Berry III can't get around Olah quickly enough, stumbles, and awkwardly goes below James, a full five feet from Demps. James fears an over-the-top entry to Olah that might result in an easy finish. With both players following Olah, it allows Demps to shoot an uncontested three and bring the Wildcats within one. A Pardon-Demps or Pardon-van Zegeren pick-and-roll likely wouldn't result in the same type of confusion.
After the injury
Northwestern managed just fine in the first couple games without Olah, winning its last nonconference game over Loyola (Maryland) and opening Big Ten play with a road victory against Nebraska. The Nebraska game will be remembered for Pardon's remarkable performance which spurred hopes that he'd be a consistent offensive contributor. He hasn't been able to replicate that kind of performance though, and Maryland and Ohio State didn't respect his nor van Zegeren's offensive games like they would Olah's.
That allowed both teams, which are two of the three most athletic Northwestern has faced, to focus their speed and length on shadowing Northwestern's shooters.
Maryland, one of the very best and most athletic teams in the country, forced Northwestern to shoot 2of 20 from three-point land, and Olah's absence had something to do with it.
Pardon dribbles to his left and hands it off to Demps before rolling to the basket. Look above at the video of both UNC defenders following Olah and contrast it to this video. Both Rasheed Sulaimon (No. 0) and Diamond Stone (No. 33) totally disregard Pardon's movement, and they're not the only players to do so. Demps, likely lacking confidence in Pardon's ability to finish, ignores an open Pardon and shoots a long-range three over both defenders. It's not the miss that's most concerning, it's the defense's lack of attention to Pardon. The better option here is a pass to the rolling Pardon, who can either finish himself or draw Sanjay Lumpkin's defender and pass to Lumpkin.
The Ohio State game wasn't much better for Northwestern, which shot 31 percent from the field in a 65-56 defeat. Tre Demps was particularly bad, going 3 of 17 and forcing the issue far too often.
After a bit of confusion, Aaron Falzon dishes to Demps who calls for Pardon to come for a screen outside the arc. Both Pardon's and Demps' defenders ignore Pardon and follow Demps, who gets by with a quick first step to his left. Then Ja'Sean Tate (No.4) becomes the third defender to disregard Pardon. Tate comes off Gavin Skelly to challenge Demps, who either doesn't see or trust a wide-open Pardon under the basket waiting for a layoff or alley-oop.
It's no coincidence that all these videos—both good and bad—featured Tre Demps. His play worsened significantly when Olah went down before righting the ship a bit against Minnesota and its zone defense. Olah's absence means that others will have to up their scoring load, and Demps has been aggressive to a fault.
What it means for the Wisconsin game
Olah remains out Tuesday, and Northwestern is going to see more man-to-man defense against Wisconsin. The good news for the Wildcats is that Wisconsin is pretty poor at defending the three-point shot: opponents are shooting 37.9 percent from deep, which makes Wisconsin the 303rd best Division-I team at defending the three (interestingly, Wisconsin's team that lost in the national championship wasn't any better as that group gave up 37.5 percent shooting on threes). It'll be interesting to see if Wisconsin will be able to stay closer to shooters given Olah's absence.
Will that lead to an offensive performance similar to that against Maryland and Ohio State? Or will Northwestern get Pardon and van Zegeren involved early and force the Badgers to respect Northwestern's post presence?
What's for certain is Northwestern's success (or lack thereof) from three will go a long way in determining whether the Wildcats are able to move to 3-2 in Big Ten play.