Alex Olah is a beast.
Northwestern’s senior center earned the first Big Ten Player of the Week honors handed out this season after turning in a double-double in the Cats’ season-opening win over UMass Lowell with 21 points, 12 rebounds and a pair of blocks.
Olah is going to be a ridiculously huge part of this team — both literally and figuratively — as it looks do something a Northwestern team has never done before: make the NCAA tournament.
Last season, the seven-footer from Romania ranked fifth in Big Ten in rebounding and second in blocks. He’s one of Northwestern’s two senior leaders, along with guard Tre Demps, and if the Cats reach the Big Dance for the first time ever, he’ll be a big reason why.
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Back to him being a beast, though.
Third-year coach Chris Collins has transformed Northwestern from a Big Ten laughing stock into a team with not so funny postseason aspirations. He’s done it through recruiting successes, and he’s done it with positive energy. He’s also done it by transforming the players who were here when he arrived, Olah included.
“My confidence is always up,” Olah said last month during Big Ten basketball media day. “Every game or in practice, it’s always there. I never let myself down. But coach Collins kind of made me be this confident.
“I remember, I think the first weeks we practiced ever, I see him outside the locker room, and he calls me over and tells me: ‘Hey, when you wake up in the morning, I want you to look in the mirror and say, I’m a — expletive — beast.’ That was kind of a thing that was going on between us. He calls me ‘beast,’ everybody kind of calls me ‘beast.’ It’s a cool thing. But back then, I was a sophomore. I was like, ‘Yeah, I can be that guy, honestly.’ And now I feel that way. I hope I can be the beast of the Big Ten.”
Through one week, Olah is the beast of the Big Ten.
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Collins knows the journey Olah has been on, how he's improved his game. He knows that for the Cats to get where they've never been before, Olah will have to play a huge part.
"You see the improvements he's made from his freshman year to now his senior year, you see all the work he's put in," Collins said on media day. "He's changed his body, he's developed a really nice low-post game. He's always been an incredibly skilled big man who can step out on the floor. He can make a shot, he can pass. I think just the confidence of having success at this level has been big for him.
"You know, certainly for us to be a good team this year, we're going to need for him to be a presence down low and to be a consistent guy in our league that can be potential double-double guy. And we're going to need that. I think he relishes that opportunity. He's really stepped into the leadership role nicely. He's been much more vocal than he's ever been. And we have to make sure that we use what he can bring to the team, and there's no question in order for us to maximize, we need him to have a great year for us."
Olah is looking to have a senior season to remember, and that means getting his teammates to be beasts, too, and turn the Cats into a contender.
“The team’s improved every year, as you can see,” Olah said. “Every year, we’ve been working really hard on and off the court, in the offseason or during the season. And we’re as hungry as we’ve been in a long time. Especially for the seniors, for Tre and I, we want this to be a really special year for us. We’re trying every day to se how we can get better as a team and how can we make the team be accountable in every practice. That’s part of the leadership. The seniors have that responsibility. Tre and I really take pride in that.”
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The Cats received a big blow when sophomore Vic Law was ruled out for the season, requiring surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. That certainly puts more pressure on Olah, Demps, Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and others.
But that core group is joined by a couple of exciting freshman in Aaron Falzon and Jordan Ash. Falzon has already impressed, as he scored 20 points in the season-opener, hitting four 3-pointers. Collins and Northwestern players said in the preseason that Falzon is already one of the conference’s best 3-point shooters, and he had yet to play a game.
Not every opponent will be UMass Lowell, of course. Northwestern has an incredible challenge against No. 1 North Carolina this month before a grueling Big Ten schedule, which has been the team’s downfall in recent seasons. Last year, the Cats lost 10 straight Big Ten games, and the conference is expected to be even better this season.
Even those with the rosiest outlook for Northwestern aren’t expecting it to be easy for the Cats to get on or near the NCAA tournament bubble. But in Olah’s final season, he wants to look back and be proud of the way his team competed.
“We’re going to take things game by game, day by day, and we’re going to see the results at the end of April,” he said. “We’ll see what we accomplish this year, and whatever we accomplish, we accomplish. But I want to look at the end of my senior year knowing that I gave my best, the team gave their best, and whatever the outcome will be, I’ll be happy with it."