Motivated Olah ready for better

After struggling in the middle of the season, freshman center Alex Olah showed glimpses of his incredible potential on Sunday.

On nights like Sunday, you remember how young these players really are.

After another difficult loss in this nightmare season, Alex Olah and Kale Abrahamson returned home from East Lansing. Northwestern had dropped its eighth straight, inching closer to the merciful offseason.

The two roommates, though, sat down and found the online link to Olah's memorable dunk. They watched the video about 10 times. The 7-foot center, who reached the heights we all expected from him, tried to deflect praise. His roommate put him back in line.

"He was like, ‘It was just okay,'" Abrahamson said. "I was like, ‘Dude! It was a pretty good dunk.'"

Every player understands the seriousness of the program's situation. Bill Carmody appears to be on the way out of Evanston after 13 years. The program, felled by injuries, will have to rally and make the NCAA Tournament next season — regardless of who leads the Wildcats.

Yet at the end of this year, it is about the bright moments, ones both quiet and loud. And it is impossible to deny the strides Alex Olah made throughout. Sure, his production declined in Big Ten play. But Olah – who could hardly rebound earlier in the year – ably battled Michigan State forwards Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne on Sunday. And he dunked. It took time, and the results are beginning to match the effort.

"It seems to have slowed down for him," Carmody said. "His decision making is better. In (Sunday's) game, it was.

"The hardest thing for a guy in our offense is to know when to pass and when to shoot. He's a facilitator in a lot of ways. It's starting to come to him."

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Welcome to reading week in Evanston, and the tense moments leading into final exams. Olah must be distracted by controversial team-related articles and rumors, right?

"Not really," he said. "I'm just focused on school. I didn't get enough sleep last night. I was writing papers and stuff."

As various individuals speculate about the future of this program – and a coaching change that would undoubtedly hurt much of his progress – Olah focuses on the little things. Everything, for him, works itself out.

Through the Romanian accent, he explains how the journey was simpler than you might guess. NU discovered him in Romania, and the raw prospect moved to Indiana and attended Traders Point Christian Academy.

This is not your traditional basketball school that wheels out prospects to Division I colleges. The Traders Point website includes a small link to athletic forms – including a fairly comprehensive handbook. In that, the word "win" can be found only twice; the word "God" is seen four times. It was an unconventional high school experience for a future Big Ten starting center.

"In two years of high school, I didn't have much competition or strong opponents," Olah said. "The (college) game in general is so physical and so fast. I have to keep up."

But from his early days at Traders Point, Alex Olah loved Northwestern. He made several unofficial visits before quietly committing during his junior season. You get the feeling that even if Tom Crean had tried to knock down his door, Olah's feet were planted in Evanston.

"I've been amazed by this program," he said, still wide-eyed.

Regardless of whether he scores zero or 20, win or loss, Olah can take solace in the college experience. He loves it. He and Abrahamson are anything but pretentious. From all accounts, students pass by their dorm room only to hear blaring speakers. Usually, these noises are only amplified because of the frequently open door.

They flock to social media and joke around. They're noticeable at dining halls. The life of a Northwestern basketball player is unique. And in the middle of the losing streak, Abrahamson lightened the mood. People took note.

He tweeted the following: "Me: ‘Guess who plays on ESPN2 tonight?' Olah: ‘Who?' Me: ‘Us, idiot.'"

Naïve to his successes, failures and general importance, Olah knows only that he needs to improve. From day one, Carmody has been in his ear. At first, the instructions were basic: Run. Now, as Olah grows into his frame and potential, he strives to be a student of the game.

Even now, Carmody jokes about Olah. In which areas of defense can Olah improve?

"Every part of defense," he said. "Every single part of it."

There is so much more for Olah to accomplish. Only now is he beginning to realize that previously untapped ability.

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When the dunk finally happened, Abrahamson was slow to understand its significance.

"I was probably just yelling and screaming, ‘Get back on D!'" he said. Understandably. Michigan State can do work in transition if left unguarded.

Olah, meanwhile, was running on fumes and the simple will to win.

"I was just so pumped in that game," he said. "I really wanted to win, and it was a good opportunity. It felt great."

He finished with an unspectacular 10 points in the 71-61 loss. He made four of his six field-goal attempts and hauled in four rebounds. It's not a one-day process.

During a six-game span in January, he never exceeded four points in an outing. He shot 30 percent in those games, and appeared lost. The player who criticized Davide Curletti and Luka Mirkovic began to resemble them. The knock was the same: timid — and, well, "bad rebounder." If anything, the dunk was an emotional release.

His hook shot – which, granted, is a pretty sight – does not suffice. Olah needed to develop a complete offensive game, beginning in practice. After jacking up threes to open his warmups, and watching a surprising number go in, he goes to work.

"Even in the last practices, I worked on my post moves," Olah said. "I tried to score, be more aggressive and show my potential."

It showed on Sunday. He set the screen for Dave Sobolewski, and no one guarded him. There was no one in the lane when Olah caught the pass, took two long steps and crammed the ball home with his right hand.

The dunk is, in fact, pretty good. And although it joins the highlight reel of Alex Olah's young career, you know he's still searching for something better.

Twitter: @NicholasMedline


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