Waiting for Nikola Cerina
It was one of the simpler reads in Northwestern’s Princeton offense Wednesday night that resulted in Nikola Cerina’s only score against Michigan. It was notable only because it was a dunk for the TCU transfer — and another sign of expectations the team has failed to reach because of injuries.
Cerina, late in that game against Michigan, slipped a screen as the point guard drew his defender away from him. He whipped the ball down low to Cerina who had all the time and space in the world to finish at the rim.
Seeing Cerina on the floor has been a rare site. He has appeared in only seven games for an average of 4.1 minutes per game. Cerina has scored only nine total points. It was not like Cerina was expected to do a whole ton — his statistics at TCU were meager at best at nearly six points per game and four rebounds per game in about 20 minutes per game. How much of a bump up could Northwestern expect from the transfer when he took the court for NU?
The effect of Cerina’s bothersome sprained ankle has been felt throughout the roster. In the offseason, Bill Carmody called Cerina the most athletic player on the roster. That kind of skill would certainly be useful — even in the starting lineup. Alex Olah and Mike Turner have struggled mightily this season, particularly with rebounding as the two average a combined 6.1 rebounds per game. If Olah were to play even 10 extra minutes and maintained his average, he could very well average that many rebounds on his own.
Cerina’s presence certainly would have helped Olah ease into the college game. Who knows how Olah would have developed with more limited minutes and a chance to feel out the game more. Cerina’s experience playing at the college level would have been a boost certainly.
And it probably would have led to some more rebounding help so that the team would not have to rely almost solely on Jared Swopshire attacking the glass. He is already out of position playing power forward (especially since his 3-point shooting is inconsistent) and now even further out of position playing some more center.
The Wildcats have certainly continued to wait and wait for Cerina to get more consistent playing time. He sprained his ankle in a practice earlier in the year and has not quite been back. Bill Carmody has been hesitant to throw him into the rotation without seeing a “good practice” from him. That is fair, but Northwestern could certainly use a healthy Cerina and all the size and potential he can give this now-young team.
And Cerina is itching to get more playing time too in doing everything he can to get back onto the floor, as he describes in this article from Chris Emma of Scout. Cerina told Emma that he feels every minute he is on the bench is a minute lost where he could help. You like that attitude. But Carmody was adamant that while Cerina is cleared to play, he still is not running right or practicing well to give him faith that he can contribute.
Swopshire though confirmed the reports of Cerina’s all-around athleticism calling Cerina “hands-down” the strongest player on the team.
Health certainly plays a role in Cerina staying out. Some of it might very well be the coaching staff feeling uncomfortable with the risk of throwing him out there. Perhaps Olah and Michael Turner are simply beating Cerina in practice.
If Olah and Turner continue to struggle though, Carmody will need to mix up the lineup some. And at some point he has to have the confidence to try Cerina. There appears to be a lot he can provide the Wildcats if he is healthy. At least in theory. The problem is we just will not know until Cerina gets his chance.
The unfortunate part is that it might not come until his final year of eligibility next year.
Count this as another strike of bad luck for the Wildcats. Even if he were just another big body, his presence would be a boost for the program as a guy who has been with the team for a year and knows how to play the college game and play Northwestern’s style while allowing the young players to ease into the game more.