Halftime at Northwestern, where the students actually care

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern students can be forgiven for any apathy -- perceived or real -- they have toward NU sports. After all, Northwestern has never had a successful basketball team, and until recently, the school's football wins have been sporadic and fleeting. But here's an encouraging sign: NU students will put down the books and ignore Chicago's distractions when the product on the floor is worth watching. Case in point: Saturday night against Michigan State.

Everything is smaller in Welsh-Ryan Arena, and the student section is no exception; including the band, maybe 200 students sit behind the hoops in the arena's lower area. But the section is full. That's more than NU students are usually able to say. All the more impressive is the fact that Northwestern is still on winter break, meaning many students aren't even in Evanston.

Again, there are very good reasons for this. Nineteen-year-old Ed Padget, a sophomore majoring in radio, TV and film, from West Lafayette, Ind., said he thought the average Northwestern student didn't care as much about sports as people he knew at Purdue because the teams had never been good. His experience has been different -- the Wildcats have had 30 wins since he arrived as a freshman last fall -- and he thinks many more students are into the game now.

"It's generally a lot better," Padget said. "It's a little more intense now. People seem to care."

Anyone with the Big Ten Network knows this is a major departure; Northwestern's student section is usually borderline depressing. It's hard for alumni from other colleges -- colleges that have been to an NCAA tournament or two -- to understand the lack of support.

Padget admitted his experience in West Lafayette was different, which he also chalked up to Northwestern's academics.

"There's a reason people don't come," he said. "Sometimes, you just need to stay in and get work done. There's a lot of academic pressure here."

Sophomore baseball players Hamilton Wise and Trevor Stephens, both 20, have also noticed an uptick in support.

"There's been much more of an effort from the athletics department to promote the games," Wise said. "It's not that people here don't like sports. It's just that we're never good. And our student body is much smaller than most places, so it's just different."

The consensus seems clear: If Northwestern builds it, students -- at least those without a paper due -- will come. Now all Northwestern has to do is get to an NCAA tournament. That's easy, right?

Brief, non-sequitur halftime notes (MSU 41, NU 33):

  • Northwestern is the team that you know you shouldn't lose to in pickup basketball. They don't look all that impressive. When they walk on the court, you automatically assume you'll win, because none of the Wildcats are physically imposing or particularly stylish. And then when they get on the court, it's clear they've played together forever; they screen you and play unusually hard defense and they run backcuts all the time, which might be the most frustrating thing in the world. So it is this evening: Northwestern is obviously the inferior team. They're clearly less athletic. But they're smart and they play off-kilter, and sometimes that's all you need.

  • Michigan State is really good on the break. Like, scary good. Each of the Spartan guards are lightning-quick in the break, and each of the three has great vision. They're less organized in the half court, but when MSU gets out and runs, Northwestern seems totally helpless.

  • Speaking of Northwestern fans, this year's Northwestern fan and team slogan is incredibly funny. It is, simply, "Make Shots." Usually team t-shirt slogans are something inspirational or ostensibly full of deep basketball insight. Not this. "Make Shots" might be the least inspirational, and therefore the most honest, team slogan of all-time. I love it.