Northwestern fans tiptoe toward March Madness

Northwestern fans
Northwestern fans are engaged in distraction tactics at Welsh-Ryan Arena. (Northwestern Athletics/Stephen Carerra)

By Devin Emory

The ghost of seasons past is ever-lingering in the minds of Northwestern students as they are dubiously excited about what their eyes are seeing.

The Wildcats really are good. They actually have a high-percentage chance of making the NCAA tournament and punching their ticket to postseason relevancy.

“We’re really excited, but we don’t really want to plan anything for March Madness,” said Dan Sagerman, co-president of the Wildside, Northwestern’s student section. “We’re very cautious. When, or if and when that happens, we definitely plan to capitalize.”

The Northwestern men’s basketball team is off to an 18-4 start (7-2 in Big Ten play) and on pace for the most successful season in the program’s history.

However, with the misfortune and deplorable seasons of the past, fans and supporters of Northwestern basketball are skeptical about embracing this promising outlook.

David Haghnaji, owner of Campus Gear, an Evanston athletic apparel store, has kept a pulse on community support of Wildcats athletics for the last 25 years.

“I think the buzz is about to start now that they’re in the Top 25, but it hasn’t yet,” Haghnaji said. “Maybe if they win the next couple of games, that will make a big difference.”

Though the first-ever NCAA tournament title game was played on the Northwestern campus in 1939, the Wildcats and Selection Sunday have never mutually swiped right, leaving Chicago’s Big Ten team as a third wheel to the Big Dance since the tournament’s inception.

What’s undeniable is the path this year’s team is taking, evidenced by crowd turnouts for recent games.

In Sunday’s contest against conference foe and college basketball blue-blood Indiana, Northwestern claimed a 68-55 victory. The students were charged up before and during the game.

“Against Indiana we ran out of T-shirts 20 mins before tipoff, which is almost unheard of,” said Evan Frost, co-president of the Wildside. “Students have been coming up to me just excited about the games and telling their friends to go.”

Still, it’s almost as if the hoopla is happening too soon. Last year, the Wildcats began the season 15-3 before closing on a 5-9 stretch.

“Right now, I’m superstitious about thinking of Selection Sunday too soon,” said Frost. “I’m very tentative about putting things together for that moment.”

Northwestern enters February sitting in third place in the Big Ten, one game behind No. 17 Maryland. The Evanston and campus communities are intrigued to see if the team sustains its momentum.

“If they can hold their space in the Top 25 in February, that would be amazing,” said Haghnaji. “Then, I think a lot of people will become basketball fans.”

Photo at top: Northwestern fans try to distract Indiana shooters in Sunday’s win at Welsh-Ryan Arena. (Stephen Carerra/NORTHWESTERN ATHLETICS)