Nikola Cerina spent his entire first season with Northwestern on the bench, sidelined after transferring from TCU. This season has included much of the same.
In his Northwestern debut, Cerina had recorded five points and seven rebounds. However, his afternoon was cut short after suffering a high ankle sprain. He hasn’t been the same since the injury.
Cerina, a 6-foot-9 junior, has struggled to regain his physical form. As a result, head coach Bill Carmody hasn’t been able to count on him to handle playing time.
“I just want him to play well in practice,” Carmody said. “Practice, practice, practice. I want him to play well in practice, then he can get in there. Because we could really use him, but he’s got to be ready to perform.”
The season is now 21 games in, and Cerina has seen in action in just six contests, averaging 4.2 minutes of action. The pain in his ankle has subsided, but the effects still linger. Cerina still lacks the endurance and strength necessary for a key role. Meanwhile, Northwestern’s front court has dealt with struggles.
“The team needs help,” said Cerina. “Every minute that I sit on the bench, I think I can contribute something if I was playing.”
Carmody knows the potential of Cerina, but sees him struggling to reach that. He isn’t willing to use valuable game minutes for his forward’s development. Cerina must earn his role in practice.
“It doesn’t seem like he moves very well,” Carmody said. “He has been cleared for a while, but when you see him in practice, he’s not running. There’s a difference between being cleared and being able to contribute.”
This season’s woes are especially frustrating for Cerina after being forced to sit out his first season. The Wildcats fell just shy of reaching the NCAA Tournament, and issues with rebounding and interior defense—one of Cerina’s greatest strengths—were largely the team’s greatest problem.
Now, Cerina is eligible to play, but hasn’t proven he is ready for the opportunity.
“I watched the team from the bench last year, and we were so close to making the tournament,” he said. “I felt I would be able to contribute. I was really looking forward to this year. It just hasn’t happened for me.”
Cerina’s teammates feel the frustration, too. As rebounding problems hamper the Wildcats, they wish the physical forward could play at his full potential.
“He’s the strongest guy on this team—hands down,” senior forward Jared Swopshire said. “We definitely could use him.”
As the season moves along, Cerina remains seated—different circumstances from one year ago, but the same frustration. He hopes that will change soon.
“I need to be patient,” he said. “Hopefully, my time will come and I’ll be able to play soon.”