Time to experiment as centers develop

Time to experiment as centers develop

Northwestern's lineup issues were quite evident in a 64-49 loss to Nebraska. While the Wildcats' two centers were unproductive in 39 total minutes, forward Jared Swopshire attacked the boards to the tune of 16 rebounds, the most during Bill Carmody's tenure. Northwestern would be wise to seek an alternative.

Bill Carmody never shies from bucking convention.

He implements the 1-3-1 zone when necessary and scoffs at the five-position model of basketball. He plays to win, however that looks in his mind.

For example: after choosing to replace the injured Drew Crawford with Kale Abrahamson, he quickly reversed course. Tre Demps, who found success as an offensive spark, joined the starting lineup. Abrahamson now finds himself searching for minutes outside of garbage time.

It's not a punishment or even an insult. As a freshman, Abrahamson needs to focus on improvement. Inconsistency happens. When the production decreased and Abrahamson failed to create shots, he was sent to the bench.

But Northwestern saw its major problem exposed on Saturday, and that has yet to be addressed.

Carmody sends out Alex Olah to start games at center, and Mike Turner enters soon after to play significant minutes. Almost always, one or the other is on the floor. Right now, the center position brings very little production to the team. It's time for Carmody to mix it up.

Neither center is ready for this sort of responsibility. I mean no disrespect. Olah arrived at Northwestern full of potential, but was not shy about explaining his unpolished game. He has made strides, and has endeared himself to a large portion of the fan base. On Saturday, Turner exemplified the "aggressive and intense" play Carmody asked for. A hard-working player, Turner gives the team positive minutes.

In the past three games, though, the two centers have combined for six total rebounds. To break it down, the center position averages two rebounds per game during that span. Olah and Turner are both struggling on offense as well. It's only natural.

I'm tired of the Mirkovic-Curletti model, of letting a spot on the floor underperform to the point at which fans despair.

Considering the center position a sacred mainstay seems futile. Their shots aren't falling. The defense is hit or miss. The rebounding is largely nonexistent.

Carmody, it seems, has little reason to play either Olah or Turner for every single minute. That was evidenced this afternoon, when rebounding came from an unlikely source.

Jared Swopshire went from passive to aggressive in the span of 20 minutes. It was oddly timed. With Indiana in town last Sunday, and the Cats hoping to pull off the shocker, Swopshire tried to take control. He scored 10 of his 13 points in the second half. That intensity carried over to Minnesota, when he utilized his inside-out game and skill set to near perfection.

Then he pulled down 16 (sixteen!) rebounds in the Nebraska loss, a Carmody era record. He played more like a center than anyone on the floor. Every time a shot went up, he bullied the Nebraska frontcourt, and usually pulled the ball down. It was one game, yes. But he could easily be the team's best rebounder.

From every account I hear, the young centers are doing an excellent job of development. Turner continues to hone his post skills. Olah works on his defense and conditioning. They compete with intensity against each other in practice, and they have made progress. But the Big Ten is tough, and their lack of production – it needs no advanced analysis – is a red flag. I'm not suggesting that Olah and Turner should be relegated to the bench for the rest of the season. They can fill roles. Just not enough to fill an entire position.

Northwestern gets killed on the boards. That will be the case for the rest of this season and the next. Unless something in the program fundamentally changes or Chier Ajou evolves into a superstar, fans can expect the same rebounding horrors.

Because, really, they can win big games in spite of poor rebounding. Against No. 12 Minnesota, NU gave up 15 offensive rebounds in the first half. Last season, in the heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, they were outrebounded 42-16. Somehow, that one went down to the wire.

This team's best chance of winning key games late in the season does not include continued high doses of Olah and Turner. The team lacks depth, which forces this sort of situation, but there's no time for copouts.

In a year that may bring back the word "rebuilding" before long, some of those 40 minutes occupied by Olah and Turner could be thrown elsewhere. Abrahamson can look to regain his rhythm. Despite nagging back injuries, Alex Marcotullio has persevered to be a solid contributor, especially as an asset in the 1-3-1. Nikola Cerina is healthy – any "oh, he's just settling back in" concerns are exaggerated – and should be playing at least a handful of minutes. There aren't many alternatives, but there are some.

Swopshire at center in a four-guard rotation? In a strange season, why not?

Olah and Turner have bright futures with this team. I even think that Olah could be a future all-Big Ten talent. But their development has reached an impasse.

Shuffle that lineup one more time. We're allowed to expect more.

Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline

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