Can Northwestern keep winning despite Alex Olah's injury?

Can Northwestern keep winning despite Alex Olah's injury?

In the wake of the foot injury that will sideline senior center Alex Olah, Northwestern faces a familiar question.

Can the Wildcats still contend for their first-ever NCAA bid despite losing their top big man for an indefinite period of time?

Northwestern announced Olah's injury on Sunday just before it closed out the non-conference portion of the season with a 74-59 victory over Loyola (Md.). The Wildcats were able to rally from an 11-point halftime deficit to improve to 12-1, but that gaudy record is partially a product of the tissue-soft early schedule coach Chris Collins assembled.

Hoping to show growth in his third season and build confidence in a young team, Collins built a schedule that featured nine games against small-conference lightweights, neutral-court matchups with North Carolina and Missouri and road games against DePaul and Virginia Tech. It wasn't Collins' fault that Missouri is awful or that Northwestern was assigned rebuilding Virginia Tech as its Big Ten-ACC Challenge opponent, but the rest of the slate clearly was intended to allow the Wildcats to stack wins together.

Credit Northwestern for not slipping up even once against inferior competition, but far bigger tests await once Big Ten play begins this week. By the end of January, the Wildcats will have faced No. 4 Maryland twice, Iowa and Indiana on the road and top-ranked Michigan State and Ohio State at home.

It appears they could play many of those games without Olah, a 7-footer from Romania who averages 12.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. Olah had scored 21 points in Northwestern's most recent game prior to Sunday, a 103-67 rout of Sacred Heart last Monday night.

With Olah sidelined, Collins made the decision to burn the redshirt of promising 6-foot-8 freshman center Dererk Pardon after initially having him sit out the first seven weeks of the season. Pardon made his debut on Sunday against Loyola (Md.) and tallied six points and four rebounds in 23 minutes.

Unless Pardon develops rapidly, Northwestern will probably have a glaring lack of a low-post presence on offense until Olah returns. Pardon, Joey van Zegeren and Gavin Skelly will try to collectively make up for Olah's rebounding and ability to protect the rim on defense.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!