Feb. 18, 2014
NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski previews Wednesday's matchup betwen the Northwestern men's basketball team and Ohio State in Columbus.
Alex Olah was in a walking boot Tuesday afternoon and his status for the `Cats Wednesday night visit to Ohio State is uncertain. "Yesterday we didn't do too much, kind of used it for a day for everybody to recover," Chris Collins said of his center, who sprained his right ankle late in the `Cats Sunday loss to Minnesota. "He's feeling better, but it's still day-to-day. We'll see what he can do today (in the Tuesday practice soon to start) and evaluate it going into tomorrow."
NIKO CERINA has spelled Olah during the season and will start in his place if he can't go against the Buckeyes. He will then have to alter the approach he has used as a sub, where he has averaged a foul every five-and-a-half minutes he has been on the court. "Definitely," he said when asked about that. "Especially on the defensive end, I didn't particularly care if I got into four trouble that much. Now I have to be careful about that. I always tried to play tough defense, which often resulted in numerous fouls. I'll have to pay attention to that considering how Alex feels. Hopefully, he'll feel a lot better tomorrow."
"If Alex can't go, or even if he can in a limited role, Niko's going to have to be smart," echoed Collins. "The role he's in, I want him to be a physical guy. So I'm OK, if he's only playing 10 minutes, to be a little bit more aggressive. If it means a couple fouls, that's what it means. But he's in shape, he's practiced hard, he's ready. I feel he's doing a good job. Like the Wisconsin game, we wouldn't have won that game if Niko didn't make some plays when Alex was in big foul trouble in the first half. But he's going to have to be smart. He's probably going to be called upon to play a bigger role than he has so far."
IT IS NOT ALWAYS EASY
for a player to change his approach in the last month of a season. But, avowed Cerina, "I don't think it's going to be that hard. This is not the first time I'm facing this situation. When I was at TCU (where he played before transferring to the `Cats), I wasn't able to foul a lot since I was starting. So all I have to do is play solid defense without gambling for steals and making aggressive moves."
"The fact that he's a fifth-year senior, I think that will be helpful," said Collins on this subject. "He's older. If you're asking a freshman to do that, I think it would be a little bit harder. But he's 23-years old. He's played a lot of basketball. He's a bright guy. I know he'll be ready to go."
CERINA HAS AVERAGED just nine minutes a game this season, but on Wednesday could well play many more. When asked the last time he did play big minutes, he simply said, "I don't really remember, to be honest."
So can he do it?
"It's tough. If you're lacking minutes, certain players have a tendency to not stay focused, not stay hungry, you know? But I just kept working. Throughout the whole course of the year, coaches held everybody accountable, even the people who didn't play even two minutes. They held them accountable and told them to stay ready. This is what they were preparing us for."
WHAT IS HARDER to prepare for Aaron Craft, the 6-foot-2 Buckeye guard who leads the Big Ten in steals with 65. "He has a big effect," Collins says when asked how he influences a game. "You go into preparation with him, he's one of the few guys who's not only an offensive presence. His presence and the havoc he wreaks on the defensive end, you have to try to prepare for that too. It's hard to simulate that because there's not many guys who can do what he does. His physicality. His toughness on the ball. His ability to make plays. I have great respect for him. He's been a great player for four years. Whether he's scoring or not, he can impact the game in so many ways."
HERE IS WHAT COLLINS is talking about. In the Buckeyes' victory over Purdue back on New Year's Eve, Craft scored seven points, collected eight rebounds, handed out 10 assists, committed no turnovers and made four steals while playing the full 40 minutes. "He just wants Ohio State to win," Boilermaker coach Matt Painter later said of him. "You don't see a lot of kids like that anymore, where he just wants his team to win and he'll do anything it takes."
THE BUCKEYES have no truly reliable weapon and are inconsistent offensively, averaging just 70.5 point-per-game (ninth in the Big Ten). They have no one among the conference's top ten scorers, they convert just 69.3 percent of their free throw attempts and, their last time out, they put up only 48 in their win over Illinois. But their defense, anchored by Craft, held the Illini to 39 on 28.3 percent shooting, which was hardly a surprise.
Here's why. They lead the Big Ten in scoring defense (58.5 ppg) and three-point field goal percentage defense (27.3), and are third in overall field goal defense (39.7). They also average just 16.1 fouls-a-game, which is tops in the conference and second-best in the nation, and have another thief who often plays aside Craft named Shannon Scott. (He has 57 steals, which puts him behind only his teammate in the conference rankings). "Tremendous," Collins says when asked about that defense.
And what makes it so good?
"A lot of different things. First of all, I think they have the two best on-ball defenders in the league. So you have two guys who can just really attack the ball defensively. You have a great presence in the middle in Amir Williams that can block shots, 6-11, big and strong. They have great length, and (6-foot-4 guard) Lenzelle Smith is a great wing defender. So they have great individual defenders, and then they've done a really good job with their schemes. They make it really hard for you to get clean looks. I think they're as good a defensive team as we'll play all year. They make it really hard for you to score."
STILL, despite that prowess and those gaudy stats, the Buckeyes serve as an appropriate poster child for the unpredictable Big Ten. To wit: In the second half of January they absorbed losses at Minnesota, at Nebraska and at home to Penn State, but then they opened February with wins at Wisconsin and at Iowa. They have more recently won four-of-their-last-five heading into Wednesday's game. But that loss, to Michigan, came at their Value City Arena, where they have suddenly proven mortal.
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