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Northwestern basketball enters a season of strange unknowns

Playing at Allstate Arena will be unique challenge for Chris Collins & Co.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at DePaul Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

In college basketball, the biggest question marks for teams often revolve around replacing lost talent. Between players leaving early for the NBA draft or seniors graduating (or even transferring), rosters get reshuffled every season.

Northwestern should not really face those kind of questions in 2017-2018. With their top five scorers and six of the their top seven minute-getters back, the Wildcats are a seasoned, experienced bunch. Sure, there are questions on the court, even about the returnees, but, in the grand landscape of NCAA hoops, we know a great deal about Chris Collins's team on the court.

Where we don't know as much is off-the-court, where Northwestern will have to deal with some wacky circumstances.

For starters, the team plays no home games, as you're probably aware. From a practice perspective, the on-campus Blomquist Recreation Center may actually be more convenient for players, though it doesn't have all the same amenities that the team's usual set-up does.

The distance from NU's Evanston campus to Allstate, on the other hand, will be challenging for both the players and fans, especially during weeknight games. Collins says that a successful team will draw fans, but playing in Rosemont will almost certainly make it so fewer students attend games. A new demographic of suburban fans may show up, but it's hard to project that at this time of year.

Either way, the gameday atmosphere will be weird. Allstate holds over 17,000 seats, which is over double the size of Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Arena will likely feel relatively empty for most games, and it's a far cry from the intimate setting at Welsh-Ryan. The days of students being effectively on-court on dilapidated wooden risers are over.

There are also major differences in the actual courts at Allstate and Welsh-Ryan. Whereas the student sections are pressed up right behind both baskets at Welsh-Ryan, there's a lot more space surrounding the court at Allstate. The players will have had plenty of time to get used to shooting on baskets with space behind them, but there'll definitely be an adjustment.

"You kind of feel like you’re on an island," Gavin Skelly said of the more open Allstate court setting.

Even more noteworthy might be the court temperature. Because there's hockey rink below the court, the Arena is "freezing," Skelly said after the team's recent practice at Allstate.

"You can like see your breath," Skelly joked. "I was kind of mad I didn’t bring like a hoodie or a winter coat to warm up in."

Northwestern also faces a bizarre schedule in 2017-2018, though it isn't alone it that respect. The Big Ten schedule will be condensed to accommodate the Big Ten Tournament being played at Madison Square Garden, which will fall a week earlier than all other Power 5 tournaments because the Big East has priority at MSG during the traditional week of conference tournaments.

As a result, conference play will begin before the end of the non-conference slate; Northwestern faces Illinois and Purdue before playing its final six out-of-conference games.

Plus, the team will have a stretch of early season games in which it has to play four games in a seven day stretch when it plays St. Peter's, Creighton and its two games at Mohegan Sun against La Salle and either Texas Tech or Boston College.

“It’s probably more what you see when you advance deep in a conference tournament," Collins said. "I think that’s where you’re really gonna have to rely on depth more than ever. To count on your guys to play 35 or 38 minutes, it’s gonna be tough.”

If Northwestern does make it back to the NCAA Tournament, it'll have an extra week off before playing its first-round game. Hypothetically, if Northwestern gets knocked out in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, for example, it could have a full two weeks before its Tournament game tips off.

There could be advantages to the layoff, should it happen. There's more time to recharge, refocus and rest for the postseason. It's a situation all Big Ten Tournament teams will face, but it remains to be seen whether it will have an impact on the conference's performance in March Madness. Again, it's more odd than anything.

At the end of the day, the court at Allstate is the identical size as Welsh-Ryan, and the basketball will be the same. The logistics that will go into this season are more difficult than usual, but that could help in some ways. Maybe playing no true home games will help the team at the end of the season. Maybe it will bring the team closer together. Right now, nobody knows.

What we do know is that these are not your typical preseason questions.