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Op-Ed: Why building the new Welsh-Ryan Arena was the catalyst for men’s basketball’s downward spiral

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Basketball content in June!

Penn State v Northwestern Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Do you remember the days of the old Welsh-Ryan Arena?

At its worst, it was a glorified high school gym filled with rickety benches, the majority of which were taken up by an opposing fanbase.

At its best, well, it was about the same, but that place could get rowdy. It clearly needed a makeover, but those same imperfections also neatly represented the Northwestern men’s basketball program for some years — At first glance, it may look ugly, but if you take a closer look, there’s some good to it.

That almost perfectly describes the state of NU men’s basketball during my early years as a fan. There were some really enjoyable players, from Tre Demps and Juice Thompson, to John Shurna and Drew Crawford. Sadly, they just could never put it all together under Bill Carmody. The losing seasons may have looked awful on paper, but those guys, among others, were always fun to watch.

Eventually, Carmody was gone and Collins came to town. After just a few years under Collins, the state of the program was trending upward, all amounting to that 2016-17 season. Obviously, the better you play, the more people you’ll draw to watch you play. That’s exactly what happened in 2016-17. The ‘Cats would end up going 24-12 and making their first ever NCAA tournament. The team was good and could make plays.

And when they did, Welsh-Ryan got LOUD.

The old stadium was far from perfect, but one thing it got right was how conducive it was for a good college basketball atmosphere. Even when the team was having a losing season, the arena remained loud.

But as previously mentioned, the stadium was old and in need of a fix. In the summer of 2016, a complete renovation was announced. At the end of the 2016-17 season, renovations began, forcing the ‘Cats to play all the way out at Allstate Arena for the next year.

As we all know good and well, the 2017-18 Wildcats lost just two players from their NCAA tournament roster in Sanjay Lumpkin and Nate Taphorn. On top of that, the ‘Cats returned their top four scorers in Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsay, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon. They opened the season ranked No. 19 in the country. They promptly finished 15-17, losing their last seven games of the year.

The effect of home court advantage is sometimes under-appreciated, especially in college basketball. Having a crowd of 5,000+ backing your team in a confined space where sound can’t travel much can certainly sway a game one way or another. Having a student section jeering every player who airballs a shot, forcing them to play so poorly that they get benched, no doubt has an impact on who will win.

Now, Allstate Arena is about 40-60 minutes away from campus, depending on traffic. Shuttles were offered to Northwestern students for the games, but few took them, because who in their right mind would travel an hour for an 8 p.m. basketball game when they have an exam the next day? With downtown Chicago, a place home to many Big Ten fans being about the same distance away, it was a recipe for disaster. Every major Northwestern basketball “home game” was played in front of a majority away crowd.

Looking back on that 2017-18 campaign, the ‘Cats had six home games decided by three or fewer possessions. The ‘Cats went 2-4 in those games, losing to Creighton by four, Michigan State by five, Maryland by seven and Wisconsin by six. Had the Wildcats been playing at Welsh-Ryan, I don’t think they’d have lost all four of those games. More specifically, I highly doubt we’d have seen the game against Creighton go the way it did, and I really don’t think they would have collapsed like they did against Michigan State.

Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that Northwestern did beat Creighton and Michigan State. By just flipping those two games, the ‘Cats would have been 17-15 with a win over the No. 2 team in the country (the Spartans were ranked second at the time of play). Additionally, after the Michigan State game, Northwestern lost their last four games of the year. Had they beaten Sparty and not suffered such a demoralizing defeat, who knows what could have happened.

If you don’t know, here’s how Northwestern’s 2018 game against No. 2 Michigan State panned out at Allstate Arena. If you do know, I’m very sorry I’m reminding you of this again.
Game flow courtesy of ESPN.

Perhaps I’m being a bit optimistic, but I really do think those games could have swayed the way of the Wildcats had they been played in Evanston. For Creighton, fans would have certainly shown up and given the ‘Cats a huge boost, and for the Spartans, students would have packed the stadium to see Northwestern try and take down the No. 2 team in the country (the game was also on a Saturday, which would have helped). Instead, for both games, a larger capacity allowed more opposing fans to flood the stands.

But enough about that disappointing season, let’s come back to the present. As mentioned previously, I feel the old WRA, in some ways, was conducive to a good college basketball environment. So what do you do in order to emulate that same environment? Why set aside an entire section of seats on the lower level specifically for donors who pay $6,000+ to sit there, of course!

I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the price of what it costs to get season tickets at the Wilson Club, but they’re steep. Combine this with the fact that some donors who have those tickets often don’t go to games, and you’re left with a lower level with empty seats riddled throughout.

To put it simply, I don’t believe the Wilson Club, or anything like it, belongs in college basketball. Seats close to the court that are set aside for big spending donors, many of whom probably don’t show up to games when the team isn’t performing, create a sleepy atmosphere that can be easily invaded by an opposing fanbase (quick note, if you sit in the Wilson Club, this is not meant to be an attack on you, more so an attack on Northwestern for implanting this bad idea in the first place).

The Wilson Club is far from the only problem with the new arena, however. Students don’t stand up at games anymore or make much noise, creating a much less intimidating student section. In terms of capacity, the new WRA can hold less fans than the old, which creates a lot of problems when the team is playing poorly, as it allows more opposing fans to buy up tickets. On top of all of that, the seats are too damn small.

Obviously, the timing of the construction that built the new WRA wasn’t entirely anybody’s fault. It’s difficult to predict how a team may look two years out, and the old WRA was badly in need of some repairs. The timing of it all couldn’t have been worse, but that blame doesn’t necessarily fall on anybody.

Is Northwestern basketball doomed forever because of this new arena? Not at all. The team may be very good this year, which would only help draw a rowdy crowd back. We haven’t seen a winning Northwestern men’s basketball team play at the new Welsh-Ryan yet, and hopefully that changes soon. The 2019-20 women’s basketball team absolutely packed the placed during their conference title-clinching game vs Illinois.

All in all, the timing of the new construction, combined with how the new arena turned out and how poorly the team has been playing post-old WRA, has been an absolutely disastrous spell for Northwestern men’s basketball.