It’s time to give Northwestern students their flowers. As Wildcat basketball has become increasingly fun and entertaining in the past couple of seasons, the student section at Welsh Ryan Arena has become a sneaky weapon for the emerging program. Chris Collins talks often about how this atmosphere can be as good as anything he’s ever experienced at this level.
And it seems to matter. Albeit an embarrassing loss, Northwestern has lost just one contest at home so far this season — a clunker against Chicago State. It also occurred right at the beginning of winter break, so the student section was a complete non-factor.
Otherwise, Northwestern’s home-court advantage has been noticeable. The ‘Cats are 8-1 at home to date and 2-0 against Big Ten foes. Those two opponents were no slouches either (that doesn’t seem to exist in this conference) in Purdue and Michigan State.
The Purdue win was tight, but it was the No. 1 team in the country. Northwestern fans undoubtedly helped will a team in serious foul trouble to an overtime victory against the Boilermakers. Then, against the Spartans, Northwestern rolled to an 88-74 victory against a team that is way better than its record suggests.
On the road, however, it’s been a different story. The ‘Cats are 3-2 in true road games, not including the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Connecticut. Both losses were in conference play against No. 14 Illinois and No. 11 Wisconsin. The wins came against Arizona State, DePaul and Penn State.
While the Penn State win was an encouraging road performance, and the Wisconsin loss was certainly a valiant effort, the Illinois loss was just horrendous. You can’t judge a team on its worst night. but losing by 30 is pretty bad.
It’s hard to believe, though, that when the Illini travel to Evanston later this month the story won’t be different. Northwestern easily could lose the game, but it won’t lose by 30. Or, at least, it better not.
For a basketball program that has historically struggled to draw out a crowd, what has happened on this campus over the past two years is nothing short of remarkable. Sure, it’s cool that alumni in the national media like Mike Greenberg are talking and tweeting about the ‘Cats. It’s cool that Andy Katz, Jay Bilas and other college basketball analysts think Boo Buie’s a rock star.
But what matters the most is that the students on campus believe in this program. They believe in what Collins is building, and they show it week in and week out at Welsh Ryan. Northwestern will take on Maryland (11-6, 3-3 B1G) on Wednesday in a game that would be frustrating to lose. The Terps did just beat Illinois on the road, though. Figures. The Big Ten, am I right?
One thing is for sure, however. Just like any other important Big Ten matchup these days, Welsh Ryan will be packed with students. And it will matter. Just watch.