EVANSTON -- "Six or seven years," Alex Olah says, a twinkle in his eye and a smile spreading across his face.
That's how long it's been since Olah, a native of Timisoara, Romania, played live in front of his family. That streak, though, will end Sunday afternoon as his Northwestern Wildcats take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Senior Day. His family arrived in Evanston on Friday afternoon after nearly a day's worth of flying. It's their first time in America.
"I'm nervous a little bit but mostly excited to have them here, and it's going to be a special night, just to have them here on Senior Night," the seven-footer said. "It's gonna be emotional but as soon as they throw that jump ball up, everything is gonna have to go and get that win and celebrate after."
The same could be said for Tre Demps, who will walk onto the court alongside his parents, his stepmother, both of his younger brothers and his wife.
"I hear a lot of different stories, but I'm not really sure what I'm gonna be feeling, what my family's gonna be feeling but just excited about the opportunity to get out of here with a win," the fifth-year senior said.
Neither player's senior season has gone quite according to the script. Olah missed six games due to a stress fracture in his foot, and then it took him six more to really get back into rhythm, according to head coach Chris Collins. The stats don't lie; take away a 19-point outburst in a blowout loss to Indiana, and Olah averaged just over three points per game during that stretch. His timing was off. He couldn't really turn with or jump off of that foot. He wasn't in the shape he had worked so hard to get into over the past couple of offseasons.
Now, though, it's safe to say he's back, having scored double-digit points in five of the past six games and having played at least 22 minutes in all of them.
It was during about that same stretch that Demps struggled, too. Over the first nine games of conference play, the senior shooting guard, a career 34-percent three-point shooter, went 11-of-61 from deep, an 18-percent clip. That struggle was punctuated with a 0-of-7 performance from behind the arc against Michigan State, and a 2-for-14 night overall. The Wildcats lost by 31.
"It was obviously a tough time, but my staff and my teammates were very supportive and continued to believe in me, and you've just gotta stick with the process, keep believing, and eventually things will turn around," Demps said.
And turn things around he did: 30 points at Iowa, including six three-pointers. Despite another loss, his team's fifth in a row at the time, Demps was back on track. Since the debacle against the Spartans, Demps has averaged over 20 points per game. Only Denzel Valentine has averaged more over the course of Big Ten play.
"Tre has a tendency — he works so hard and puts so much into this — he has a tendency to really put a lot of pressure on himself, and I think that sometimes leads to him struggling because he doesn't relax and just play," Collins said. "And what I've noticed this last month is he's played with a much more relaxed look to him. He’s been great this last month of the season."
But perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that there would be ups and downs during their senior season; there have been ups and downs throughout both men's careers in Evanston. Demps started his first career game as a true freshman, got injured, and underwent season-ending shoulder surgery exactly a month later. Throughout his time at Northwestern, he's been a streaky scorer with a tendency to force things when the offense grows stagnant. But this season, and especially over the last nine games, that's side has been seen much less often.
"Obviously he's been one of the better scorers in the conference the last couple years, but he's learned how to do it more efficiently, where he's using his teammates," Collins said. "He's become a better distributor of the ball, he's played better defense, rebounding, he's become a much more complete player."
Olah, too, struggled at first adapting to the college game. The confidence he shows off the court nowadays wasn't there, both on the hardwood and off it, during the early years of his time in Northwestern. From Henry Bushnell's profile on the big man last year:
After a bad game, Olah's morale, and thus his confidence, would plummet. "I would feel bad for my teammates," he says. "I let them down, and that kind of brought me down. And then in practice, I was not as competitive."
"He doubted himself," coach Chris Collins said in early May when he and father Doug spoke at Northwestern. "He was under a lot of criticism, and he's not an overly confident kid."
But Olah grew both on and off the court. As soon as Collins was hired, Olah went to him and told him simply, "make me a good basketball player. I'm gonna do whatever."
"I think he kinda saw some determination with me, and that's what he's full of. He did everything for me and I did everything for him, and I'm gonna still give everything I have left for the rest of the season for him," Olah said.
Now the kid who was afraid to make a mistake is a man who is a fan favorite. When he trotted to the scorer's table against Penn State in the first meeting between the two — his first action since the injury — Welsh-Ryan Arena was at close to the loudest its ever been. "A-lex O-lah" chants took over.
"It was amazing, just to know I'm so loved by the fans, and it definitely got me too excited," Olah said, laughing a little. "I remember I got too excited on the court and I rushed a couple things. Just knowing I have the support of so many people, it's unbelievable. I'm definitely gonna miss that."
Now Olah and Demps, along with injured graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren, will take to the Welsh-Ryan court for a final time, and a lot has changed from when they arrived, including the court color itself. Olah and Demps have seen teammates come and go, NCAA Tournament hopes do the same, and them both develop into team leaders.
"Alex is an emotional guy outwardly," Collins explained. "Alex is a big rah-rah guy. He’ll chest bump and grab a guy and share emotion, share passion. Tre leads by example: his work ethic, his commitment to being great. What he puts into this not only in practice, but in the weight room. Doing extra in the mornings, extra at night. He leads by his example and his actions, and I think they work off each other really well because they’re two different types of leaders."
But they both also recognize they aren't done yet; Northwestern still has a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament, a school record for regular season wins and a possible NIT berth to play for.
Sunday presents a chance for Olah and Demps, two pillars of this program over the past two seasons and bridges between what former coach Bill Carmody had built and what Collins wants to build, to reflect on their time at Northwestern. Olah will miss the fans, who absolutely adore him, the team and the campus. As for Demps: "You don’t really remember the games as much as just the memories with your teammates, and that’s what I’m probably gonna remember the most."
It's been a long road for Demps and Olah. While they may have different demeanors off the court, they share a lot on it, namely the huge desire to extend their careers past Sunday afternoon. Both have overcome hurdles to get where they are today. They're leaving Evanston vastly improved players and, more importantly, better men.
"There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears on that court,' Collins said. "But what's been the most proud for me to see is the men they've become."