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With methodical execution, Northwestern’s home-court atmosphere is as strong as ever

And now that the ‘Cats are in the postseason mix, it’s only going to get stronger.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten’s third-place team beat the conference’s last place team, missing its top scorer, by 20 points at home. As unsurprising as that is, plugging in Northwestern’s name and its recent history typically adds shock value comparable to the effect of flipping the sentence altogether.

But that really wasn’t the case on Saturday, nor was it the story. It was the opposite that was true; Northwestern took care of business from the under-12 media timeout in the first half onward. From there, NU found holes in the middle of Minnesota’s zone defense at will, forced turnovers constantly and all but clinched the win before halftime with a 26-8 run.

It wasn’t shocking, in part because Northwestern had proven it could handle a less-talented opponent in Nebraska a few days ago. So, the tension of bracing for that inevitable hot shooting streak or blown lead was just about nonexistent in Welsh-Ryan Arena.

More importantly, that turned what was happening on Ashland Avenue from a basketball game into a full-on party, white balloons and all. In a building that opposing Big Ten fans have overtaken on a near-nightly basis, Northwestern may have had its strongest home-court advantage yet.

I’m only a sophomore, so statements like “the buzz surrounding men’s basketball hasn’t been this strong since [insert year]” don’t resonate with me as much as they probably should. Here’s what does: the main events of the second half were a student swishing a half-court shot and the student section celebrating its free Chick-fil-A after Jaden Henley missed Minnesota’s eighth free throw of the day. Not even Chase Audige’s driving, one-handed dunk outweighed those moments.

More on the chicken sandwiches. Without the score bug on the Big Ten Network broadcast, one might have thought this was a late-game free throw in a one-score conference tournament game.

Sometimes, the student section is filled to capacity and roaring. Sometimes, like on Jan. 4 against Illinois, it creates the electric atmosphere that serves as the perfect background noise for a huge conference victory. Rarely does it fuel an environment so joyous that you wonder if there’s even a possibility of a negative result happening.

“It’s literally everything,” Audige said. “Even hearing about when the tickets went out, and they sold out in the first 15 minutes, it really brings a boost to us. Just coming out there and playing and seeing all the students and the energy in the gym. It’s unexplainable.”

He and Boo Buie rode that wave to combine for 45 points, while the team shot 45% on three-pointers — a great shooting clip for the second straight game. Buie racked up eight assists and committed only one of just four Northwestern turnovers, compared to 15 Minnesota giveaways. For the most part, as it did against Nebraska, NU prevented the Golden Gophers from coming close by avoiding critical mistakes.

Chris Collins noted that NU’s emphasis on avoiding turnovers has been a program staple, and that hasn’t been more clear than it has these past few weeks. Northwestern is committing fewer than nine turnovers per game in Big Ten play, and its 5.22 average turnover margin is far and away the best mark in the conference.

Another team that minimized giveaways, of course, was the 2016-17 team that reached the NCAA Tournament. Now that the ‘Cats have won their third straight game in six days and continue edging their way past the bubble, the comparisons get louder by the day. For now, Collins wants to pull the brakes on those.

“There’s 11 more games left in the league,” he said. “I think a lot of that is really premature. We’ve done a great job through nine games to have six wins. Not sure any of you guys would have predicted that — maybe I wouldn’t have either — but it’s a testament to how well our guys have played. We’ve just got to keep putting ourselves in position to get wins.”

Collins added that he constantly tells the team how important the early-season wins are to establish good position, making the games in February all the more important. Sitting at 6-3 in the Big Ten, the ‘Cats have done just that. And that, in turn, almost guarantees Welsh-Ryan Arena will have an exciting atmosphere for the rest of the winter.

This is an undergraduate population — three-quarters of which has dealt with COVID restrictions to varying extents — that hasn’t seen men’s basketball finish with a winning record, let alone a winning Big Ten record. That makes this next month truly uncharted territory.

“Please keep coming back,” Collins urged. “Win or lose, they’re seeing this is a team you can really root for.”