Center duo could pay dividends

For Northwestern, things have been messy at center for a while. But as Alex Olah continues to develop, Chris Collins is turning to Nikola Cerina to do the dirty work, writes Sylvan Lane.

Alex Olah is a big man.

At 7'0", Northwestern's starting sophomore center towers over every other player on his squad that gets meaningful playing time, and that's a major problem. So what's Chris Collins to do?

He turns to Nikola Cerina. The 6'9" redshirt senior came to the program three years ago as a power forward, but will spend most of his minutes spelling Olah at center. While he might have trouble matching up to the Big Ten's big men, Northwestern's "most physical player" will be key to success in Chris Collins' eyes.

"Niko's kind of our dirty work guy, and there's guys on every team that have to provide that," Collins said Friday. "Niko brings toughness, he brings experience, brings physicality and great energy when he's playing well, and I thought even though he didn't have a basket in [Lewis exhibition], he was one of the big reasons why we won the game."

And Collins is right. Cerina pulled down nine rebounds against Lewis–eight of them in a seven-minute span–and was a key to the suffocating defense that helped Northwestern win despite missing shot after shot. As the team begins to find its identity on offense while banking on strong perimeter defense we've seen in it's first two games, Cerina said he's focused on providing a spark when he takes the floor.

"What I try to do when I come in the game is try to bring a lot of energy, especially on the defensive end, and that's pretty much my role so far," said Cerina. "I'm just trying to uplift the team as much as I can and help them win in any way possible."

Cerina also gives Collins the ability to keep things fresh and adds a little bit of flexibility to a team with a depth deficit. Although having Olah at center works best in Collins' four-around-one offense, lining up Cerina alongside Olah gives Northwestern the defensive size, versatility and experience as Sanjay Lumpkin and Nate Taphorn are still developing.

Although Cerina may be the stronger defender, it's Olah who will be the most offensively productive center for the Wildcats. Olah averaged 6.1 points in his freshman season, and Collins called him the "more polished offensive player" who he'll depend upon for low post scoring.

Olah's biggest knock last season was not playing strong enough on either side of the ball, a puzzling problem for one of Northwestern's most physically imposing players. Along with "being a beast" under the basket on jump shots, the center said he's focused on slimming down to be quicker and more agile to keep guards in front of him. Against big men, Olah said he'd have to do his work early and challenge shots more effectively.

Offensive and defensive strengths aside, both players will be critical components in Northwestern's ever-raging war against poor rebounding. However, this isn't going to be their job alone.

Last season, the injury-ravaged Wildcats struggled on the boards, but there are a few fundamental differences between this season and last that bode well for the Wildcats.

First, Drew Crawford is back, and Sanjay Lumpkin has already looked like a promising rebounder. Both had eight rebounds against Lewis, and while Crawford will obviously be a staple in the starting lineup, Lumpkin's stock is climbing after two strong overall performances.

Also, there's no more Princeton offense to constrain players to the fringes of the perimeter, which should allow the Wildcats to crash more effectively. But along with the shift in fundamentals comes one in focus.

"I'm just a firm believer that in basketball or in any sport you become better at what you emphasize," Collins said. "So, there's not a day that goes by that we don't do something that's based on rebounding. It's something we talk about everyday, it's something we emphasize every day."

Collins insisted that better rebounding doesn't only fall on the shoulders of Olah and Cerina, but the team on whole. Likewise, Cerina said that even though he and Olah are the biggest men on the court for Northwestern, rebounding is more than a matter of outmuscling your man.

"To be honest, rebounding is not so much about physicality as it is mental approach, and I think Coach Collins did a great job with that—just making us realize the importance of every rebound we have the opportunity to get," Cerina said.

Just like for rebounding, the success of Northwestern isn't entirely up to Olah and Cerina. But the two are charged with shoring up one the Wildcats' historically weak positions, and plan to do so with a complementary mix of strength, quickness, toughness and mental approach.

We'll see if they can make up for the lack of size soon enough.

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