With Northwestern basketball under two weeks away, it’s time to start addressing the most important issues facing this team and the questions it must answer as it hopes to progress toward the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament. We’ll call this segment the “Eight Questions of Fate,” as the answers to these questions will likely determine how close Northwestern gets to that goal. Next up we discuss which of last year’s two key seniors — Tre Demps and Alex Olah — will be more difficult to replace.
Caleb Friedman: The answer has to be Olah. There is nobody on Northwestern’s roster with the same combination of size, offensive skill and defensive awareness that Olah had.
At center, the cupboard is bare, to say the least. Dererk Pardon flashed potential last season, but he isn’t even close to as developed offensively as Olah was. And further, Pardon struggled to stay on the floor; he averaged 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes, compared to just 3.7 for Olah. Olah was also solid on defense, an area in which Pardon struggles. Outside of Pardon, true freshman Barret Benson is the Wildcats’ only other legitimate option to play the five. To expect a freshman to contribute meaningful minutes right away is a difficult ask, but Chris Collins doesn’t have much of a choice other than to roll with Benson as Pardon’s backup. Against the likes of Caleb Swanigan, Thomas Bryant and others in the Big Ten, Northwestern’s lack of size and depth on the interior will be a huge problem.
As far as Demps is concerned, Northwestern will miss his scoring punch and tenacity, but the team is in better shape to replace those things than it is to replace what Olah brought. Bryant McIntosh figures to shoulder more of the scoring load this season, and a combination of a healthy Vic Law—who might be the team’s best player—Scottie Lindsey and Isiah Brown should be able to make up for most of Demps’ lost production.
Zach Pereles: I think the answer here is clearly Demps, and for a few of reasons. Demps was the only guy who could create his own shot (for better or for worse) last season. You can’t just create scoring out of thin air, and late in the shot clock when Northwestern needed a shot, it was Demps and Demps alone who could get a good look on his own. The team’s leading scorer, Demps was also invaluable as a second ball-handler. When I look at this team’s backcourt, I see Bryant McIntosh as the only sure thing. Jordan Ash and Isiah Brown are unknown commodities at best: The former didn’t do much of anything in limited minutes last year and the latter is an undersized freshman known for his ability to get to the bucket, a skill that doesn’t usually translate immediately at the next level. When McIntosh needed a breather, it was Demps who handled the ball and committed very few turnovers. Demps played over 90 percent of available minutes because of the shortage of backcourt options, and I just don’t see this backcourt as being significantly better behind B-Mac this year. If NU felt it had an effective option other than Demps, Collins’ wouldn’t have played him so much.
Perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of Demps’ game was his defense. A scrappy defender who also hit the boards reasonably well, Demps used dogged effort to be Northwestern’s top perimeter defender. The dropoff between Demps and Scottie Lindsey (the guy most likely to get a lot of his minutes) will be gigantic based on last year’s film. That really worries me.
Caleb Friedman: Demps was the team’s best scorer last season, but he wasn’t efficient. He shot under 40 percent from the field and on too many possessions it felt like he was settling from the outside. He only got to the free-throw line 2.4 times per game last season, a startlingly low number for how many minutes he played and how frequently he had the ball in his hands. On a team that doesn’t have one or two stars to take over a game, the offense must be built around ball movement and balance, rather than the sort of hero-ball Demps played at times. Yes, a large part of the reason he took so many shots last season was because of an oft-stagnant offense and the huge number of minutes he played—but this isn’t winning basketball, at least not for Northwestern.
And while the team doesn’t have a surefire replacement for Demps, I would contend the combination of Lindsey, Brown and Vic Law is less of a step down than Pardon and Benson are from Olah. Aaron Falzon will also help make up for the lost three-point shooting. What the Wildcats lose in Olah is a much more efficient player than Demps was. Olah got to the stripe slightly more times per game than Demps did, and shot a better percentage there. Olah wasn’t one-dimensional offensively either. He had the ability to step out, even from three, and keep defenses relatively off balance. Barret Benson may extend his range that far at some point in his career, but to expect it this season is a stretch.
Zach Pereles: The thing with Olah, though, is that Northwestern was able to hold up without him last year, and that was in large part due to Pardon (his 28-point, 15-rebound performance versus Nebraska was the most of any NU center last year). Plus, most players take their biggest jump between their freshman and sophomore seasons, so he should be even better this year. When Demps left the game, which he did rarely, the dropoff was immediate and very obvious.
There’s also much more clarity at the position that Olah vacates: Pardon and Benson will both be depended on down low. But it’s anyone’s guess as to who replaces Demps. It could be Lindsey, who remains very much an unknown quantity, or it could be Brown... or Ash... or even Law. But there’s no true replacement for what Demps brought to this team as consistently as he did. Demps didn’t miss a game or a start last year and played a ton of minutes. Replacing the pure quantity that Demps provided will be a major challenge; I don’t think anyone on this team is prepared to take on as big a role, minute- and production-wise, as Demps had.