Big Ten

Northwestern's Alex Olah proves 'beast' moniker with big first game

alex-olah-1116.png

Northwestern's Alex Olah proves 'beast' moniker with big first game

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern uses big second half to win season-opener]

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Badgers drop out, five Big Ten teams ranked in latest AP poll]

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.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Northwestern gear right here]

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."

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

1121_baker_mayfield.jpg
USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?