The basic idea: Surround Alex Olah – a promising if not inconsistent center – with four perimeter guys and hope to compete with elite opponents. Olah shot only 42 percent in his freshman season, and would arguably face more pressure than any other player as the Collins era opened.
For five games, Olah failed to even approach the promise. On Monday against Gardner-Webb, he finally delivered — scoring a career-high 18 points and adding five blocks in NU's 72-59 victory.
"Alex Olah was the star of the game," Chris Collins said. "He gets a bad rap for not being as physical as he should. But I'm really proud of Alex. He took his time, and we went to him."
Like Friday's win over IUPUI, Northwestern had some initial struggles — with no offensive rhythm and continued foul trouble. But unlike that game, they closed quickly, making 18 of their 27 second-half field goal attempts en route to the comfortable win.
NU worked on the proverbial inside-out game, beating Gardner-Webb despite only three makes from behind the arc. The Wildcats opened the second half leading 28-25, but established quality looks to avoid an upset bid.
"The way we moved the ball in the second half was great," Crawford said. "… They started to pressure us a little bit more, but we stayed composed and we found the open man."
That often meant Olah, who made five of his six second-half shots in what was easily his best performance of the season. With 1:01 remaining, he iced the game with a layup that brought Northwestern's lead to 68-59.
"The coaches were on me to be more aggressive in the post," Olah said. "Every time I get the ball in there, I have to make a move."
Collins also preached the importance of effort: "If you're ready to play, you will lose." That continues to resonate, with another strong defensive effort against Gardner-Webb. The Runnin' Bulldogs shot just 35 percent from the floor – making two of 14 threes – and failed to convert on the Wildcats' early miscues.
Sanjay Lumpkin, meanwhile, had his least effective game of the season and was ejected after committing a flagrant 2 foul with 2:47 remaining. Contrary to initial reports, he is eligible to play in NU's upcoming game against Missouri.
"I'm disappointed in the play by Sanjay," Collins said. "It's not something we can have at that point of the game."
"I've been kicked out of a game, so I just helped him along to move on from it," Crawford added.
Winners of three straight, Northwestern travels to Las Vegas for games against Missouri and UCLA. And in spite of two early losses – and more uninspired games – the team can prove its mettle later this week.
"We're capable of being a great team," Crawford said, "so I think just the opportunity to go out there and play two great teams is going to be great for us. That's exciting in itself."
Minutes earlier, Alex Olah joked: "Too bad I'm not 21."
As long as he matures on the floor, no one's complaining. At 4-2, the Wildcats are set for their season-defining stretch.