In Evanston, college basketball is unique

As Boiler Sports Report's Chris Emma prepares for his current job to cross paths with his former beat, he offers the perspective of what makes Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena special.

If you've never seen a basketball game at Welsh-Ryan Arena, check this one off your Big Ten bucket list.

Northwestern's home court gets an unfair bad rap. Yes, it's an intimate feel with old-school wooden bleachers—not a cushioned-seat arena with constant video replays—but this is what makes feel basketball special. It's not about the luxuries; the environment makes the difference.

Basketball is a game that started with peach baskets, not crab rangoon in private clubs.

When Welsh-Ryan is packed to the rafters, it provides a special atmosphere. After spending two years on the Northwestern beat, I learned this firsthand.

Some of my most fond memories were from the 2012-13 season, where the Wildcats came so close to the school's first-ever NCAA tournament berth. There were moments like the rushing of the court after an upset of sixth-ranked Michigan State, and the NBA-range three-pointer that made John Shurna the program's all-time leading scorer. The anticipation through each of these games was incredible.

There's an energy in Welsh-Ryan Arena that's unique. Part of it comes from the long-lasting hope that Northwestern will finally find its way in the Big Dance. Some of the diehards have been going to games for decades, never once losing hope that it will happen.

A new audience of Northwestern fans has found its way to the 62-year-old building. The athletic department's vast marketing efforts, trademarking the Wildcats as "Chicago's Big Ten Team," have gradually brought success. Ticket sales have increased in football and basketball, while the Northwestern brand continues to see greater recognition.

With this, Northwestern's fan base grows a bit stronger in a Chicago market where its alumni base is the 11th-largest out of 12 Big Ten schools. Welsh-Ryan Arena isn't the neutral-site game for the rest of the conference, as it was for so long.

But so many basketball fans haven't been to Welsh-Ryan, not even giving it a chance. There are some myths to dispel about Northwestern, and some facts that should be known. One the eve of the game where my Purdue beat crosses paths with my past job, I felt these needed to be shared.

-- Northwestern fans are passionate, just not in numbers. It's a small private school with a national alumni base, compared to the rest of the Big Ten where state schools essentially serve as a pro team. NU's fans lack strength in numbers, but there's no lack of school pride.

-- One of the greatest differences from decades is past is that the university genuinely cares about its sports teams. Before Gary Barnett brought the purple to Pasadena and Bill Carmody took the basketball program to relevancy, the students and administration largely ignored the teams. Now, the athletic department is heavily funded and brings the university great pride.

-- The facilities aren't dumpy. Ryan Field isn't exactly "The Big House" and Welsh-Ryan isn't "The Barn," but each offers a comfortable, convenient game experience.

-- One more, and this is the most important fact. It's "NU," not "NW" or "North Western." This one shouldn't be too hard.

There are some of the things one learns after spending a few years in Evanston. It's a great place to live with a growing passion for sports. Northwestern is becoming known for more than its academic reputation.

A game at Welsh-Ryan Arena is well worth the trip, for any fan. It's a classic college basketball environment that any Big Ten basketball junkie can appreciate.

Cross this one off the sports bucket list if you get a chance.

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Northwestern Wildcats, and currently covers the Purdue Boilermakers. A Chicago native, he resides in West Lafayette.
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