When Alex Olah went down with a foot injury following Northwestern's win over Sacred Heart back on Dec. 21, it felt like the kind of injury that could sink the team's season. The Wildcats were riding high with a 11-1 record at the tail end of a cushy nonconference schedule, but—without Vic Law—knew that Big Ten play was going to be tough, and even more difficult without their 7-foot anchor down low.
Northwestern, thanks to the emergence of former redshirt Dererk Pardon, went 4-2 in the six games Olah missed but has dropped all three games since his return. Obviously, playing the likes of Maryland and Indiana has something to do with that, but it's undeniable Olah wasn't quite sharp when in his initial return. He only played a total of 20 minutes in the losses to Penn State and Maryland and went a combined 1 of 9 from the field for 5 total points. Beyond the stat line, though, it was clear he wasn't 100 percent and didn't look himself.
"I just have to get comfortable with [the foot], get my wind back," Olah said before the Indiana game. "It's weird. When you sit out and don't play, you kind of lose it. Now, I just have to trust my foot. It's a process."
All of that changed on Saturday, as Olah posted 19 points on 9 of 12 shooting in Northwestern's 89-57 loss at Indiana. In a game that was more garbage time than competitive contest, the only Wildcats to play well were Tre Demps and Olah. For the first time since his return from the injury, Olah—against Thomas Bryant, one of the Big Ten's top young centers—was able to show off his usual array of post moves and other maneuvers at the rim that make him such an effective scorer.
"I thought his confidence and aggressiveness were much better," Chris Collins said on Tuesday afternoon about his center's performance on Saturday. "It took him a couple of games to get his legs back. I think [his play] was the biggest bright spot from that game."
Let's take a look back at the tape to see what the senior was able to do right on Saturday:
Almost four minutes into this game, Northwestern was still scoreless, but Olah changed that with a nice back-down of Bryant (No. 31), leading to a contested but high-percentage layup.
It starts with Olah getting good position on the low block and ends with a sort of spin move that lets him use his dominant right hand to go up hard for the finish. Bryant McIntosh smartly recognizes the advantage and quickly feeds the big man, who used his height and weight advantage over Bryant for the score.
In this clip, Olah and Demps run a nice crosscourt pick-and-roll that gets Olah the ball on the other block with a major height mismatch over the 6-foot-7 Troy Williams (No. 5). By the time Bryant recovers, Olah is basically at the rim and only has to switch the ball from his right hand to his left for a short hook shot. The problematic foot looks to be fine on this play as Olah races across the floor from the top of the key to the block before any Hoosier can body him up. That's a good sign.
He did make a three-pointer in the second half, when the game had already been decided, but Olah made most of his shots at and around the rim. Here, he gets the ball a little further away from the basket, faces up Bryant and then spins into the lane after dribbling toward the baseline. The move completely fooled Bryant and was executed to perfection, netting Olah a wide open look.
It was the type of quick and decisive move Olah was making prior to his injury and it's tough for even the athletic Bryant to defend. There aren't many guys of Olah's size who can make that play, which makes him such an important weapon for Northwestern when he's healthy. Also, such a play is the byproduct of his decision to not take the 15-footer he has settled for much this season, to limited levels of efficiency.
This might be the most physically impressive offensive play Olah made all game. Here, he just uses the slip screen from Scottie Lindsey to get the inside edge of Bryant, whom he easily backs down all the way to the basket for his easiest score of the game. Once Olah gets the initial position on Bryant, it's all over for the defender.
But, Olah's resurgence wasn't just on the offensive end. Off a high pick-and-roll, he's stuck on guard Robert Johnson (No. 4) who easily gets the edge on Olah and seems to be headed for a wide open layup. However, Olah is able to run him down for a massive block. That's a difficult play for most big men to make a quick guy like Johnson and further shows that Olah clearly has the lift and confidence back in his foot.
He even said so himself when talking to the media on Tuesday, mentioning how he knows he was "avoiding contact" and not playing with his normal physicality against Penn State and Maryland.
"I knew it was time to change something about my game since I played so poorly [in those two games]," Olah said. "I thought the Indiana game would be the perfect match for me."
When big guys like Olah suffer foot injuries and return a few weeks, or even months, later with little practice time, the mental strains of the injury can be just as the physical ones. Olah admitted as much with how the injury affected his playing style and mentality, which changed this weekend, resulting in a performance indicative of a healthy player with a confident mindset.
If Northwestern is going to end its three-game losing streak on Thursday night against No. 12 Michigan State, a physical and strong Olah is going to need to show up instead of the timid and unsure Olah from the Penn State and Maryland games.