Northwestern Offense Struggling Without Olah

Northwestern basketball got off to their best start in school history, but they knew that the competition would be revved up as they entered conference play last week. So far that prediction has come painfully true, with two straight losses after their win over Nebraska in the Big Ten opener.

Dec 30, 2015; Lincoln, NE, USA; Injured Northwestern Wildcats center Alex Olah (22) watches action against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in second half at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Northwestern defeated Nebraska 81-72. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Photo by of Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

But the losses, to Maryland and Ohio State, aren’t necessarily the issues on their own. Nebraska is an early Final Four favorite and Ohio State has won 9 of their last 10 games including a win over #4 Kentucky. So these are not exactly cupcakes that Northwestern is losing, right? Too early to worry, right? Perhaps, but the losses have exposed some big picture issues worth looking at going forward.

Despite the win over Nebraska, the origin of their struggles came with the injury to senior center Alex Olah. Just before conference play kicked off, the team announced Olah would be out “indefinitely” with a foot injury. Along with being the team’s third leading scorer, Olah’s ability to play with his back to the basket as well as run an effective pick and roll open things up for the team’s shooters.

“It’s hard to loosen the defense when you can’t drop the ball into the post”, said head coach Chris Collins after the loss to Ohio State. “So that’s an element of our offense that’s been taken away. Alex commands double teams with everybody we play.”

His absence has been glaring when you look at the decline of the team’s scoring and shooting percentages since he got hurt. Northwestern had been averaging about 80 points per game and shooting nearly 40% from three. Take a look at their last three games:

Vs. Nebraska – 81 pts, 50% FG, 43.5% 3PT, 76.5% FT

Vs. Maryland game – 59 pts, 37.3% FG, 10% 3-PT, 59% FT

Vs. Ohio State game – 56 pts, 31.3% FG, 24% 3pt, 53% FT

“Obviously the last two games offensively hasn’t been there for us”, said Collins. “And certainly not making excuses, but not having a guy like Alex to be able to just drop it into the post and get some offense when things aren’t going well has really put a lot of pressure on our two guards.”

Sure they are playing much better competition of late, but Northwestern has still gotten a lot of good looks in these games. Shots just aren’t going down. But a number on here that is not affected by the quality of the defense is free-throw percentage. While struggling from outside, Northwestern needs to get more out of driving to the hoop, getting easy baskets and drawing fouls, which they are doing. But once they get to the line, they are not taking advantage of those opportunities.

With Olah out, teams have been able to focus more on Northwestern’s main scoring options, Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps. Demps and McIntosh already carry the majority of the weight of this team on their shoulders, but with Olah out, there is nowhere to release that pressure. Joey VanZegeren doesn’t have an offensive game and Dererk Pardon get’s most of his points off of offensive rebounds and put-backs.

“Without Olah it’s tough”, said McIntosh. “Teams are trying to take us away and they’re doing a good job of it. They’re making us take tough shots and without Olah we just don’t have the inside presence. It’s not a knock on Dererk or Joey, they’re doing a great job, Olah I just feel is an All Big Ten center so it’s tough taking him out of it.”

Teams are doing a great job of taking away the three-point shot, the bread and butter of Northwestern’s game even before the Olah injury, and Demps, one if their leaders on offense, has really struggled to make shots. In their last two losses, Demps has shot 7-33 from the field, including 2-14 from three and has not attempted a single free throw.

Northwestern is going to continue to struggle while they wait for Olah to return, but they are going to need more contributions from guys like Aaron Falzon and Scottie Lindsey to help take attention off the guards and Collins will need to get creative in finding other ways to get the offense going if they continue to struggle from outside.

Northwestern will have an opportunity to get back on track this weekend on the road against Minnesota, a team really struggling right now having lost seven of their last eight games. It is an important game for Northwestern to get back on track before they face Wisconsin on Tuesday.