NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look at the development of freshman center Alex Olah as the Wildcats get set to host Purdue on Saturday.
We are discussing Alex Olah, the seven-foot freshman center who often does not play that tall. "He doesn't dunk the ball. What?" yelps 'Cat coach Bill Carmody. "'Well, I try to outthink.' 'Outthink? You're 275 pounds. You're seven-feet tall. Don't worry about outthinking anybody.' You know. I just think it's habits. He doesn't have the habits and that's what we're trying to instill."
"He's still learning--he's very strong and really big and has a really high IQ--but he's still learning how to actually use his body. That's the whole point for him," adds Ivan Vujic, the 'Cat assistant who works with their big men. "He doesn't know how strong he is and what he can do with this type of frame."
Last Wednesday, in the first half of the 'Cats loss at Michigan, Alex Olah played timidly. But then, while scoring six of their first eight points in the second half, he went on the attack. "He was very aggressive, especially on our pick-and-rolls. He was rolling to the basket hard," remembers the forward Jared Swopshire. "He's a big guy. So when he goes to the basket hard, he's going to score or get fouled every time. That's something the coaches have been working on with him, and he's been doing a great job making improvements in that area. I know what he can do. I go up against him each day in practice. When he's aggressive, he makes the team better."
Why is it hard for him to be continually aggressive?
"He's coming out of high school. He didn't have to do that in high school. He's bigger than everybody. Now you get on the college level and everybody's just as big, they're stronger, so you consistently have to be aggressive like that. It's just getting used to doing it."
So it's a mindset?
"It's definitely a mindset. It's getting that aggressive mindset that I'm going to do this every time, even when I'm tired."
"Go hard to the basket! Go hard! Go hard!" That is what we hear 'Cat assistant Fred Hill bark at Olah as he runs him through post drills. But then, in games, we watch as he ignores that dictum, eschews a drive to the basket, and either passes or offers up a baby hook. "I don't know. DNA," Carmody will say when asked why it is hard for his center to maintain his aggression. "He's a kid who hasn't been exposed to this kind of competition. He was here for two years at a little Christian school. The competition was horrible. They had only five good guys on his team, so practices weren't anything. So here he has to learn to come everyday. It's all new to him. But I'm seeing improvement in his work, in practices and stuff. But to tell you exactly what makes one guy have an edge and another guy look like he's a smoothy, it's hard to tell."
So the learning curve has been steep for Alex Olah all through this basketball season. For he had grown up in Europe (Romania), where the game is slower and more nuanced and much less physical than here, and had played in the States for a tiny Indiana school called Traders Point Christian Academy, where his mere size allowed him to dominate easily. It was not natural for him, then, to jostle and brawl and sacrifice his body, which are all bare necessities for survival in the Big Ten.
"In high school," even he admits, "I didn't have much competition against centers. But in Romanian and European championships, I met players that are taller and bigger than me. That kind of gave me an idea of how the Big Ten was going to be. But here the centers are more physical, and stronger and more athletic."
And what's been the hardest adjustment for him?
"Maybe the physicality. When I came to the States I was 230 pounds. Now I'm almost 280, so I think I'm making progress. But, yeah, the physicality is the most important part over here. I just have to compete hard and work hard everyday and do extra work."
"He's been working hard, the kid," Carmody will later say. "In the mornings, he's working on his foul shooting. He's working on rolling and catching it and dunking it, all sorts of things around the basket. He's going to get better. He's watching tape. He's becoming a student of the game, is what I would say. So we just keep working him. We keep going and going and going, and I know he's going to improve."
chance to show improvement comes Saturday at Welsh-Ryan, where he will be
matched up against the Purdue freshman
center A.J. Hammons. Their numbers are disparate. Olah is averaging just six
points and four rebounds a game; the seven-foot Hammons, coming off a 30-point
night against Indiana, is averaging 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks
per-game. But, Vujic will finally say of his charge, "In practice, he's shown
big improvement. Now can he translate it from practice to the game?
are coaches. But what's really going on not only in his head, but in everyone's
head, is a big question mark. But I know he cares and he wants to get better.
He realizes now he's got to figure it out. We tell him what he needs to do. But
eventually he's going to have to deliver and do it on his own."