Change is never easy. Even when the change in question will undoubtedly lead to a brighter and better future, it is bound to create to some turbulent situations as it unfolds.
For the Northwestern Men’s Basketball program, change is afoot in the form of a revolutionary and vital overhaul of their home, Welsh-Ryan Arena, which has been nothing more than an object of scorn from Big 10 basketball peers for the past two decades. The university has poured upwards of $100 million into the renovation effort in what is surely their most emphatic commitment to big time athletics in recent memory. By the time construction is completed in 2018, the program will boast a basketball fortress to rival most power conference schools around the nation, and will lay claim to a solid building block for a new era of prolonged success.
More on the move
More on the move
The turbulence will occur in the interim of that rebuilding effort, as the Wildcats will be forced to play their 2017-2018 season in a temporary home. That temporary home was announced Tuesday to be the 17,500-seat Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois. The venue — right off of I-90 and minutes away from O’Hare International Airport — has served as the home arena of the DePaul University’s men’s and women’s basketball teams for the past thirty years and will spend a year playing host to all home games for the nomadic Wildcats.
Unfortunately, turbulence may be far too understated of a phenomenon to describe what everyone in Coach Chris Collins’ program will have to endure in that year. Granted, the situation in which the athletic department found themselves was far from an easy one to navigate. As evidenced by disastrous situations in the past surrounding stadium renovations and temporary homes (See TCU), uprooting and relocating for a year in the world of college basketball is never easy. However, it does not take much effort to put yourself in the shoes of the Wildcats players and staff and notice the litany of red flags that this stadium decision carries with it.
The questions that loom over the 2017-2018 season currently are ones of such importance and abundance that, without answers to them, a picture of the simple day-to-day basketball operations would be impossible to imagine for those within the program. The most pertinent and pressing of these questions undoubtedly swirl around where the team will practice. Under the Collins regime, the team has typically been put through the paces in either Welsh-Ryan Arena itself, or the smaller McGaw Fieldhouse attached directly behind it.
Both of these options will not be viable during the rebuild. A program spokesperson has confirmed to Inside NU that entire arena, including the Fieldhouse, will indeed be part of the renovation project. With the team’s temporary home arena located about 45 minutes of rush hour traffic away from campus and additions of new full length basketball courts to the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion (SPAC) on north campus not set to be completed until well after winter of 2018, no options for a temporary practice facility readily spring to mind. The Athletic Department is in the process of searching for an adequate facility, the spokesperson said, but a practice home up to the standard of a power conference program and within a convenient distance from campus will likely not be revealing itself anytime soon.
But of course the practice situation is not the only major issue. Perhaps the more important one, especially on game nights, is Allstate Arena and the atmosphere (or lack thereof). It’s an issue that everyone who knows anything about Northwestern sports will be all too familiar with.
Yes, Welsh-Ryan has been known to be a tad tame on game nights, but what will happen when the hundreds of students willing to take the five-minute shuttle ride to the intimate, occasionally charming atmosphere of a familiar arena for every weeknight are then asked to carve out almost four hours from their night to commute to Rosemont and pepper with purple the distant, pro-style, seating layout of a cavernous arena that is made to house more than double their school’s entire undergraduate student body? If anything will be able to utterly zap the enthusiasm from a student fan-base with a rapidly growing interest in their basketball team, it is that exact proposition. Look no further than the 2,000 average DePaul fans who came to watch their Blue Demons play each one of their home games this past year to get a sobering picture of the atmosphere vacuum that Allstate Arena is for Chicago-area college basketball. The flat, spread out seating of the venue’s lower level makes 2,000 people look as if they are about 200 and sound as if they are about two. The commute from DePaul’s campus to the arena was about equidistant to the commute from Northwestern’s campus, and given that information, that figure of 2,000 fans per game may be a startlingly accurate indicator of what is in store for the Wildcats attendance figures.
The program spokesperson says that the program is making fan accessibility and cultivation of game day atmosphere one of its top priorities in preparing for the logistics of the temporary move, but any scenario of matching even the relatively subdued vibe of Welsh-Ryan seems incredibly far-fetched.
From a player’s perspective, this move could not be more frustrating and disruptive. 2017/2018 should be a year where, if all things go to plan, the Wildcats will be returning ample amounts of talent—including a senior class including Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey and redshirt junior Vic Law — and should be primed, ready and focused on finally turning the corner under Coach Collins towards becoming a consistently legitimate college basketball presence, both in the Big 10 and nationally. Instead, they will be forced to cope with an unprecedented myriad of obstacles that will threaten to ruin any rhythms, routines, and comfort levels that any individual in the program may have established at Northwestern.
For the point guard McIntosh, this deal will be particularly raw. A senior in the year in question, B-Mac was likely dreaming of marking his final year on campus by leading the program in a thrilling push toward its first ever NCAA Tournament bid, captivating the interest of the student body and Chicago sports fans alike, and graduating as a hero having accomplished his goal. Instead, Northwestern will be sending off one of their best guards ever to the tune of grinding in a series of unknown patchwork practice gyms, 40-minute commutes to games, and depressing Wednesday nights against Rutgers in Rosemont where a purple contingent of fans is neither seen nor heard.
McIntosh, a man who will have sacrificed so much for the program in his career, is now essentially being asked to sacrifice his entire senior season in the name of brightening the horizons of those coming into the program behind him. That has to be a extraordinarily bitter pill to swallow. Everyone in the program including MacIntosh likely understands that this is a necessary evil to move forward in the future, but for those who are actually being forced to keep the Northwestern Men’s Basketball boat afloat during this temporary period lost at sea, it will be frustrating beyond words.