At what point does an ember of a chance turn into a full-fledged flame of realization?
For everyone donning purple and white yesterday, there had to have been some turning point, some inclination — that is, if you could take your eyes off the action. Northwestern wasn’t just holding its own with No. 10 Illinois, but indeed looked like it had a real chance to earn a win.
Sitting in Welsh-Ryan Arena’s 300s-level press row, that very sensation dawned on me with just 7:48 remaining, and the score 60-57 NU. No matter what followed, the Wildcats proved they could hang with anyone in the nation in their building, but there seemed a little more meat to bite off the bone.
As the two in-state rival fanbases exchanged deafening rallying cries, and as Boo Buie/Brooks Barnhizer and Coleman Hawkins/Marcus Domask swapped enormous shots, the ‘Cats were ultimately the ones answering the bell in an all-time classic, winning 96-91 in overtime. For context on just how close the game was, neither side had a lead larger than five points in regulation.
Where Northwestern separated itself was in the final period, after its primary four guards/forwards played all five extra minutes, and with most having scarcely left the floor in the first 40. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that NU prevailed in overtime — over a team clearly better and a subpar matchup — because of its crowd support.
Once Buie splashed a stepback three and Barnhizer drilled a corner trey with the foul, the new Welsh-Ryan Arena was maybe the loudest it’s ever been in over six years of existence, the type of ambiance that separates you from any other sensation. After the Wildcats took a 79-76 advantage, they never looked back.
“You hold serve at home; you have to,” said head coach Chris Collins, moments removed from prancing shirtless in the locker room. “We knew for us… We had to win tonight.”
For most fans and pundits, that blind faith seemed a little excessive. After all, the ‘Cats had just been bludgeoned 96-66 by the same team only 22 days before, and that squad was adding a potential All-American back in Terrence Shannon Jr. Those following this Northwestern basketball team over the last two seasons, though, know it’s clear that there’s something about home magic; Illinois head coach Brad Underwood insinuated it himself postgame.
In 2023-24 alone, the Wildcats have gone 10-1 in their own building, making them one of four Big Ten squads to have at least that many wins and one or fewer losses at home. That includes a perfect conference mark, too.
For more context, the KenPom rankings of some of the teams NU has downed at Welsh-Ryan so far: No. 2, No. 10, No. 16, No. 23, No. 66. None of those wins are anything to scoff at — and, as is becoming evident, aren’t flukes, either.
On the other hand, though, Collins’ side has erred as a visitor, going a combined 4-4 in away or neutral-site contests. Admittedly, two of those have been close losses to outstanding teams in No. 13 Wisconsin and Nebraska, but the Wildcats still didn’t execute when it mattered independent of location.
NU embodies much of the rest of its conference in that dimension of road troubles. In Big Ten play thus far, home teams are 41-16 (.719), while the mirror image 16-41 (.281) when traveling. It seems unlikely that that trend will be bucked anytime soon given a) the collective strength of the conference and b) tremendous environments from Lincoln to Piscataway.
With 12 remaining games guaranteed, Northwestern will play exactly half on the road. That includes at No. 1 Purdue, at Michigan State and at Maryland, which all seem to be rather formidable hurdles. Consequently, Collins & Co. very well might need to sweep their remaining home competition to lock themselves in to a March Madness seed for the second straight year.
The greatest chance that the Wildcats could get upset on Ashland Avenue is likely in the next two weeks, when the team ushers in Nebraska on Feb. 7 and Ohio State this Saturday. Beyond that, the other four (Penn State, Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota) appear rather solidified.
After all, with just how much better Northwestern seems to click when the baseline is purple, a clean sweep might be the most likely outcome. And, if you were wondering, the ‘Cats haven’t had fewer than two losses at home in a season since 1982-83.
According to Bart Torvik, NU has a 44.1% chance to make the NCAA Tournament, which is sixth-best in the conference. Following last night’s win, the team’s second over a top-10 foe, an air of optimism has definitely returned — particularly relative to the first meeting in Champaign. Then again, plenty of outcomes are possible over the span of one-and-a-half months and 12 games with little room for error.
What’s still unknown is Northwestern’s tournament fate, but this is undeniable: the 2023-24 Wildcats will take the floor in Evanston six more times. That means six more chances to watch Buie sink patented floaters and come up with magical, improbable, late-game shots; six more opportunities to see Brooks Barnhizer’s emergence as a two-way stud; six more times to see Ty Berry splash critical threes; and, of course, just six more renditions of Northwestern’s goosebump-inducing “Dream On” highlight reel.
If last night is any indication, every moment in Welsh-Ryan Arena needs to be savored — in part because it’s already late January, and also because of the Wildcats’ wildly improbable restoration of one of the most legitimate home-court advantages in America.