Northwestern’s dance with basketball history

Northwestern men's basketball practice
The Northwestern men's basketball team practicing at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Feb. 14. (Mark Singer/MEDILL)

By Mark Singer

Standing in the same arena of his final high school game some 25 years ago,  Chris Collins can’t help but smile when he considers the success of his current team. The rollicking atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan Arena these days, unthinkable until a few months ago, brings the Northwestern coach back to 1992 when he led Glenbrook North to its first-ever supersectional.

The former Illinois Mr. Basketball missed a potential game-winner in triple overtime of that game a quarter century ago, but he cherishes the memory of that electric feeling on the Wildcats’ homecourt.

Now, a quarter century later, Collins’ team has Welsh-Ryan filled regularly, this time with Northwestern fans looking to be a part of history as the team chases its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“The crowds have been great,” he said. “I always envisioned it. I likened it back to my last high school game I played in here and it was sold out. It was so loud. It was a great environment, and that’s what I envisioned.”

The 19-6, 8-4 Wildcats are one win away from tying the single-season school record, and are a near-lock to make the NCAA Tournament after beating No. 7 Wisconsin last Saturday.

When Collins took over as head coach in 2013, he was concerned the Wildcats wouldn’t win a game in the upcoming season if star guard Drew Crawford left the team. Collins remembers the difficulty in selling a Northwestern basketball program without any sense of legacy to recruits.

“There were no banners in here,” he said. “There was nothing to hang our hat on for tradition.”

The former Blue Devil and assistant to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski came to Northwestern to create the team’s legacy. His goals go far beyond merely making the NCAA Tournament, but he realizes what an important step it is to the program to participate in the tournament for the first time in 78 years.

“[Making the NCAA Tournament] is on everybody’s mind because it’s historical and people want to see it be done,” he said. “It’d be a big step in our process, whenever that happens.”

Northwestern’s second-leading scorer, Bryant McIntosh, is familiar with making history. He won two state championships at Greensburg High in Indiana, the first titles in school history.

“This is obviously a lot different …,” the junior said, “but yeah, I think I’ve been a part of history before.”

McIntosh actually looked at Northwestern’s lack of accomplishments as a plus in his recruiting process. He said he liked that “there’s no legacy around here, there’s no jerseys hanging around. … Here I give myself an opportunity to do something special.”

McIntosh’s teammate, sophomore Vic Law, can’t recall ever being part of a historic team. He’s hoping to change that next month on Selection Sunday.

“If we are lucky enough to get there, and we take care of business, then it will be a special time,” he said.

Photo at top: The Northwestern men’s basketball team practicing at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Feb. 14. (Mark Singer/MEDILL)