Nearly an hour before Northwestern took the floor for its afternoon practice, Mike Turner was already at work. The redshirt freshman center was sweating bullets onto the floor.
Pivoting toward the hoop, the undersized center battled a large blocking pad held by coach Tavaras Hardy, simulating the physical Big Ten battles he’ll face each game. Turner spent his first season at Northwestern learning while sitting out. Now, he faces trial by fire in a key role.
“It’s tough, it’s tough,” Turner said of the challenge he faces. “It’s a different level of physicality. Everybody plays hard every single play. If you don’t bring it, you might get embarrassed.”
While Turner is young, inexperienced, and playing a reserve role, he still has little room for error. He must use his athleticism to counter the size and strength of conference foes. Meanwhile, true freshman Alex Olah must utilize his 7-foot, 285-pound frame to match each challenger.
Northwestern is counting on its two role-filling freshmen to become consistent post players. The project remains a work in progress.
“There’s definitely a learning curve,” Turner said. “The Big Ten is really physical and it’s a way every game.”
While the regular season is past its halfway marker, Northwestern is still figuring out how to use Olah and Turner in various game situations. Coach Bill Carmody continues to gain a comfort in which matchups best suit each center.
“I watch practice,” he said, “I see what’s going on, along with my staff, and we just go and see what’s happening during the game. It’s not really just my gut; it’s see who’s playing well, what the matchups are, and different game different thing happen.”
Thus far, Olah has seen the majority of minutes, while starting in every game. However, Turner has been a useful compliment, offering different abilities than Olah.
Turner saw 29 minutes in a loss to Iowa, where he quietly had a strong performance, blocking three shots and recording two steals. Meanwhile, Olah struggled to matchup with Iowa’s size. At times, Carmody has had a quick trigger with his two centers, as he tries to create an advantage for his team.
“I’m just trying to help the team win,” said Olah. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can. Coach will decide, if I’m helping the team, I’ll play. If not, then Mike can.”
There is plenty on the plate of Olah and Turner, plus fellow freshman center Chier Ajou, who remains sidelined with a knee injury. In recent years, Northwestern has lacked the post play required for the Princeton offense to operate. Now, NU has the pieces in place, but it has yet to bring wins.
“Hopefully, we can pick it up a little more and it can start translating into wins,” Turner said. “I think the coaches expected a little more production out of us than we’re giving right now, and I think it shows up in the win-loss column.”
The demands are high, but the action is real. Olah and Turner must learn and adjust on the fly.
“It has been great,” Olah said. “We’re both focused on getting better.”