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The ’Cats are on a run, backed by Northwestern Wildside every step of the way

Students are packing Welsh-Ryan Arena to cheer on this men’s basketball bid for the NCAA tournament
northwestern basketball
This men’s college basketball season has been marked by the first win in school history over the No. 1 ranked team in the country, then Purdue, along with big wins over rivals Indiana and Illinois. It is the first team in school history to be ranked in the AP Top 25 at the end of February. And there are high hopes for a bid to the NCAA tournament in March. Photo by Ryan Kuttler

The atmosphere inside Welsh-Ryan Arena is attracting national attention in college basketball, the soundtrack to a season that has exceeded all expectations in Evanston.

But the story of Northwestern Wildside, the full-throated student cheering section, began even before recent marquee wins over No. 1 Purdue and No. 14 Indiana.

Since moving into a completely renovated home facility in 2018, Northwestern men’s basketball has been searching for the kind of atmosphere that head coach Chris Collins remembers from his own playing career at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

> Northwestern’s final home game of the regular season is Wednesday, March 1 against Penn State.

“Way back when, [we] had this dream of creating a new Welsh-Ryan,” Collins told the Big Ten Network. “Creating this atmosphere that could rival what we see at other places in our conference and nationwide. [This season] has been everything we dreamed of.” 

Back in September 2022, Andrew Cass, Northwestern’s associate director of marketing and fan engagement, felt it might be possible. Standing on the sidelines during a rainy night at Ryan Field, he was focused on the students filling up the stands.

“The day before that game, our students — credit to them — started calling for a ‘blackout’ in the student section. I remember thinking ‘You can try, but we don’t have any black shirts to give away.’ The whole section still showed up wearing black,” he said. “That was the first moment when I thought that what we were going to try and accomplish during basketball season might actually work.”

None of those Wildside members were around to see the Wildcats make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2017. A few years later, COVID-19 forced teams everywhere to play without fans.

And that’s a big reason why this season means so much to students like Kayla Cohen.

“I think there’s been a big shift in student culture since the pandemic,” she said. “Students coming to Northwestern lately tend to be a little more interested in school spirit. Speaking for myself, that was a huge reason I decided to come here and join Wildside.”

Cohen spent her first year in school as a member of the Northwestern cheer team. It was a short leap to Wildside’s executive board and helping lead the student section.

“I think what you’re seeing this year is a combination of the basketball team playing well and some really effective marketing from athletics and Wildside,” she said.

That marketing began last fall during Wildcat Welcome with a pep rally to pump up Northwestern first-year students. Cass wanted to make the event feel like a real basketball game, with the lights, music and vibe that students have come to expect this season.

He also had a special guest.

“Bring Pat Fitzgerald into any room and he will convince people to show up and support Northwestern Athletics,” Cass said.

Coming off that launch, the athletics marketing staff and Wildside went to work behind-the-scenes to convert student enthusiasm into a string of packed crowds for home games all winter.

When students register with Wildside, they receive a sticker on their student ID and are eligible for free gear. Inside Welsh-Ryan, there is the pep band, a D.J. and an in-arena host amid concert lights and smoke cannons.

When the lights go down, the crowd is ignited by the likes of senior guards Boo Buie, Chase Audige and a group of Wildcats that are taking the program into uncharted territory.

The first win in school history over the No. 1 ranked team in the country. The first team in school history to be ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at the end of February. And soon, Northwestern’s second trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Cass still meets regularly with Wildside president Marco Contreras to discuss promotions and student attendance, as the Wildcats have become the hottest ticket on campus.

Wildside makes its presence felt with cheers, costumes and handmade signs. With more than 1,000 students at every game, student section leadership has focused on promoting positivity and eliminating conduct that violates a collective commitment to sportsmanship.

At a recent game, Cohen brought a sign with the face of junior guard Ty Berry surrounded by blueberries and raspberries. Berry’s family approached her after the game and asked if they could take a photo of the sign. Cohen offered to let them take it home instead.

Free student tickets sold out in minutes for matchups against Indiana, Purdue and Iowa. Northwestern fans have stepped up to help get even more students into Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“Northwestern alumni have been donating their tickets to students,” Cohen said. “Before every game, there are Twitter posts matching up students who couldn’t get tickets with season-ticket holders who aren’t using their seats. I think we’re underestimating how many students are attending games because some of them aren’t even in the student section.”

The exact number of students in attendance may be up for debate, but the moments are undeniable. Storming the court against Purdue. Another sellout against Indiana, and a last-second shot from Buie to all but punch Northwestern’s ticket to the big dance.

The unthinkable is happening every night at Welsh-Ryan Arena — on the court and in the stands.

“I’ve had a chance to play in pretty much every great, iconic venue in college basketball,” Collins said. “The atmosphere in there is as good as anything I’ve ever been in.”

Austin Siegel is a writer for the Division of Student Affairs.