EVANSTON- The 10-4 (1-0 Big Ten) Northwestern Wildcats are in prime position to make a run this year. They’ve won four games in-a-row, five of their last six, and have improved on the defensive side of the floor (allowing just 58 points per game).
On Sunday night however, the Cats’ will face what could be their biggest challenge of the season. The fourth-ranked, 13-1 (1-0 Big Ten) Wisconsin Badgers make their way to Welsh-Ryan Arena for a nationally televised contest. One that could dictate the landscape of the Big Ten for the rest of the season.
More specifically, this will be a big game for Wildcats junior center Alex Olah. And according the 7-foot Romanian himself, he’s been looking forward to this game all season.
“As soon as the Big Ten Conference schedule came out and I saw that Wisconsin was the second game, (I got excited)” Olah said before Friday’s practice.
That’s because Olah -who’s NU’s third leading scorer (10.4 PPG), leading rebounder, (7.1 RPG), and top shot blocker (1.9 BPG)- will have the tall task of defending one of the best big men in all of college basketball.
Wisconsin senior center Frank Kaminsky -who stands 7-feet tall and weighs 235 pounds- leads the Badgers in scoring (16.6 PPG), rebounding (8.4 RPG), blocked shots (2.0 BPG) and is their second leading assist man (2.1 APG).
He is the driving force both offensively and defensively for Wisconsin, and makes things a lot easier for his head coach Bo Ryan. Especially after being named this year’s Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year.
Olah says he “can’t wait” for this game and that he “embraces” the challenge. Last year Northwestern went to Madison and held Kaminsky to just six points. They walked out of the Kohl Center with a 65-56 victory. Of course they had Drew Crawford, who scored 30 points that night, leading the way.
With Crawford now a member of NU’s alumni, Olah knows that he’ll have to contribute a little more offensively this time around.
“It’s so exciting to play against such a good team, and especially against a good player like Kaminsky” Olah said. He added, “It’s going to be a challenge for me.”
Kaminsky, who can pretty much do everything on the floor, is a challenge for any team. As for how Olah plans to meet that challenge he said; “I have to be physical with (Kaminsky), keep him off the perimeter, contest his shots, and we’re going to guard him as a team.”
It sounds like a solid game plan for practice but putting that plan into action on game day is always the hard part. The difference between this year and last year is that the Wildcats have better depth up front.
Now whenever Olah needs a breather, fellow senior center Jeremiah Kriesberg -6-foot-10, 240 pounds- is more than capable of filling in for him. Plus they have more size at the forward position compared to last season thanks to freshman Vic Law (6-foot-7, Top-75 recruit power forward), Gavin Skelly (6-foot-8), and and sophomore Nate Traphorn (6-foot-7).
Last year, NU head coach Chris Collins had very little options up front. Nikola Cerina, who has since graduated, was Olah’s primary back up last year. But despite his 6-foot-9, 245 pound frame, he was more of a power forward than a center and struggled greatly.
The other centers on the team were a pair of freshman in Aaron Liberman and Cher Ajou. Both men saw very little playing time in year one of the Collins era and left the program as a result. Northwestern was also undersized at the forward position.
The aforementioned Crawford, who’s normally a shooting guard, got most of his minutes at small forward because of his height (6-foot-5) and wing span. Sophomore forward Sanjay Lumpkin (6-foot-6), played power forward his freshman year which did the team no favors.
The only available forwards on the bench were the aforementioned Traphorn, and the 6-foot-7 Kale Abrahamson who transferred schools over the summer. With Law and Skelly on the roster now, Lumpkin and Traphorn can focus on their natural wing positions.
It’s no wonder why Northwestern’s confidence is sky high this time around. But at the same time, they’ve managed to stay level headed and focus on the task at hand. And that task, especially for Olah, is to find a way to beat Wisconsin again.
” We have to score” said Olah, “We had some moments against Rutgers (in their conference opening victory on Tuesday) when we went scoreless for like 10 minutes. We can’t have that against a good team like Wisconsin” he added.
The time is now for Olah to lead by example. Follow me on Twitter @GabeSalgado82