College Basketball Nation: Alex Olah


Some quick thoughts on Michigan's wire-to-wire 94-66 drubbing of Northwestern Thursday night:

Overview: Northwestern never had a chance. Any version of this Wildcats team -- even one at full strength, with injured stars Reggie Hearn and Drew Crawford or long-since-suspended JerShon Cobb -- would have had a brutally difficult task keeping this Michigan team from scoring at will Thursday night. But that's not the current Northwestern team. Missing all those players, with an undersized backcourt and little besides Alex Olah in the paint, the Wildcats were obviously overmatched. Michigan opened up a huge early lead and never looked back -- oozing confidence all the way through.

Turning Point: The opening tip. That sounds like a joke, but it really isn't: Michigan went up 10-0 by the 16:48 mark -- Trey Burke had seven of those points, including two ankle-breaking moves (one that led to an open 3, one that left poor Dave Sobolewski in the dust) -- and genuinely never looked remotely like losing control of the game from there. The lead was 33-13 at the 10-minute mark, and 51-30 at halftime. In recent seasons, at something like full strength, Northwestern has been at best a foil and at worst a tough out for the Wolverines in Welsh-Ryan. That wasn't the case Thursday night.

Key Player: Trey Burke. Michigan had a handful of impressive performances. Tim Hardaway, Jr. returned from injury on point from the perimeter. Nik Stauskas shot well (as usual) and put the ball on the deck enough to keep defenders honest. Mitch McGary finished with eight boards, and showcased a little open-floor defensive work with an early steal and fast-break dunk. But Burke was the one worth the price of admission. He was in control of the game the entire time -- see the aforementioned opening burst, or his 15-point, 6-for-10 first half performance -- but more than anything it was the way he handled the game. Nothing was rushed, nothing was difficult, and nothing was beyond his control. The Wildcats were unable to put up much of a fight, but I don't care: Burke makes it all look way too easy.

Key Stat: In the first half, the Wolverines finished 21-of-36 from the field and 8-of-13 from from beyond the arc. And then it was over. Good luck defending that.

Miscellaneous: Welsh-Ryan Arena has a pretty great little basketball ambiance; its size makes it intimate, and its age helps it feel vaguely old school. But that purple court is every bit as bad as it looks on TV. (My Twitter replies seemed torn on whether it was drawn with colored pencils or markers. Your mileage may vary.) ... Northwestern had a rough night at the office -- the highlight was definitely when the school introduced football coach Pat Fitzgerald, fresh off a 10-win season, as the "best college football coach in the country," which made visions of a displeased Nick Saban dance in my head -- but freshman center Alex Olah was a bright spot. For a guy who only the most hardcore recruitniks had heard of before he signed with NU, Olah looks like much less of a project than he should be. His ball control could be better, but he has a fledgling hook shot over both shoulders, and he moves well (and intelligently) without the ball. He's a keeper.
You already know about the first. It's Louisville forward Jared Swopshire, who transferred out of Rick Pitino's program this spring in search of more playing time -- a scarce quantity in a frontcourt that already includes Chane Behanan, Gorgui Dieng, Wayne Blackshear, and a mix of talented reserves.

Swopshire found that playing time at Northwestern, where he'll immediately raise the level of athleticism in the Wildcats' program. And his transfer comes at a perfect time, as coach Bill Carmody searches for frontcourt talent to replace leading scorer John Shurna.

Northwestern also announced the signing of 7-foot center Alex Olah Wednesday. Olah originally hails from Romania, and though he isn't an ESPN top 100 talent by any stretch, his CV does come with some rather impressive notches: He averaged 18.5 points, 13.1 rebounds and 4.6 blocked shots per game as a senior at Traders Point Christian Academy in Zionsville, Ind., and he put up 16.7 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game in the 2011 FIBA U18 European Championships.

Those numbers are almost surely inflated by the competition -- you can watch (hilariously edited) YouTube videos and decide for yourself -- but there's at least an outside chance Olah can enter Evanston, Ill. and contribute immediately. At the very least, he has size. If there's any quality the Wildcats need, it's size. Northwestern was one of the worst rebounding teams in the country in 2012; per KenPom.com, they ranked No. 319 in offensive rebounding rate and No. 327 on the defensive end. Time and again, the Wildcats -- who started John Shurna at forward and the let's-be-polite-and-say-not-very-good Luka Mirkovic at center -- were manhandled in the paint by bigger, stronger, and just plain taller Big Ten foes.

Shurna was an excellent player, an efficient, lanky shooter perfect for Carmody's Princeton style. But he simply couldn't compete on the boards. Swopshire can. Olah is a mystery, but at least he stands 7-feet (and appears, judging by the videos, to have some ball skills to go with the size). And at least the Wildcats, forever in pursuit of that elusive first tournament berth, will bring something on the interior.

So: Is 2013 the year? In this Big Ten, probably not. But the Wildcats' chances look considerably better today than they did just a few weeks ago.

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