Friday, May 29, 2009

A Great Time for NU Sports, Basketball Needs Attention as Well

Northwestern's fifth straight women’s lacrosse National Title puts that team in rare company when it comes to team sports domination. Even better, the sport of lacrosse is so east-coast based that NU winning certainly helps drive the school’s profile upwards in a place where NU still probably doesn’t get a lot of attention. Also, for any NU team to win that much shows that it certainly is possible to have a great academic reputation and a great athletic reputation. I must say, I’ve been very impressed with the number of Northwestern alums who have stepped up and written articles about the team and what it means to see National Titles come to Evanston. Michael Wilbon’s article was probably the best, but several other good ones have been written as well.

Another NU sport which is getting a lot of positive press lately is football. Between the idea of playing a game at Wrigley Field (which I must admit I have mixed feelings about) and Coach Fitz showing up at a Cubs game, a Sox game, and on Twitter, has NU football getting a lot of attention. If you want read Coach Fitz’s tweets go to http://twitter.com/coachfitz51.

Actually, it was Fitz’s tweet about meeting with the North Shore mayors which got me thinking about today’s topic. It’s a great idea for NU football to try and reach out to the local community, but it doesn’t seem the same effort is made with basketball. Northwestern seems to miss many chances to promote their hoops squads. Or has given up on chances. Efforts were made in the past with Cat-Chats and such, but recently I haven’t seen as much. For example, at the Spring football game I didn’t see any sign of NU hoops. Now, I know it is to early to sell tickets, but some posters or something would be nice. Also, in the past Illinois has sent both their basketball and football coaches to sign at Wrigley. I see no reason why Bill Carmody couldn’t tag along with Fitz. Yes, NU basketball has made strides in local recruiting, but if they don’t continue to have a local presence those strides won’t last. If the Northwestern’s Athletic Department wants to send Fitz on tour, then Carmody, Hardy, or someone representing basketball should be right besides him. Fitz can be the main spokesperson, that’s fine, but some basketball representative should the Joe Biden to Fitz’s Obama.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Shurna Gets National Team Tryout

Northwestern reported today that John Shurna is going to get the chance to tryout for USA U19 National Team. 17 players will tryout for this team. This a great chance for John to show his skills on a national (and perhaps international level) it is also a great chance for NU's name to get out to the a wide range of new people. If Shurna is one of the 12 players who make the roster, he will play in Auckland, New Zealand from July 2-12 with the rest of the USA squad. I think John has a decent chance to make this team because he brings a wide range of skills as an offensive player and rebounder. The area where he needs to make the most gains will be on defense where several quicker players did beat John to the hoop during the Big Ten season. One move Shura could make to improve this is to work on his shot blocking skills, with his long arms he might be able to squat the ball away from behind when smaller guys beat him to the hoop. Anyway, good luck to John and I hope he makes this team. Here is more from nusports.com: http://nusports.cstv.com/sports/m-baskbl/spec-rel/052709aab.html

Monday, May 18, 2009

Looking back at memories of a classic game...

Lake the Posts has had a series of really interesting posts recently discussing the most memorable individual moments in the history of Northwestern football. One of the earlier posts in the series briefly mentioned one of the most memorable moments in Northwestern basketball history—the Wildcats 97-93 win over #8 Michigan which propelled that Wildcat team into the NIT. I was only 11 years old at the time, but looking back it was probably that game as much as any other which cemented me as a life-long NU fan. The heart of my post today will focus on my memories of that game.

Before I get into that though a little background is necessary so you understand what you’re reading. Over the past two years, I have on occasionally procrastinated from school work by working on a manuscript I’ve tentatively titled It’s Easy to Cheer for Your Team. Right now the project is stalled at about 30,000 words because I’ve finished my post-grad program and I am furiously filling out applications for high school English teaching jobs (hey, if I fancy myself a writer as might as well teach it, right?). Anyhow, the title comes from an encounter my family and I had with several Wisconsin fans during a game at Welsh-Ryan in which those red-sweater wearers expressed extreme shock we where cheering so hard for the Wildcats. What’s more amazing, though, is that wasn’t the first time I’d encountered such sentiments. It is as if the fans of other Big Ten teams are shocked to find out we NU fans actually care if our team loses. I guess some of that comes from the natural desire to be aligned with a winner. I mean the two biggest Ohio State fans I know went to Bowling Green, but they support the Buckeyes more than the Falcons because Jim Tressel’s teams are winners. Personally, I can’t imagine cheering for a different team than the one I grew up with and the one which represents my school, but I understand others feel differently. It’s tough to cheer for a team which provides as more heartache as happiness, but for those of us who stick with the Wildcats through thick and thin the big upsets mean even more. One of those big upsets was the victory over Michigan on March 12, 1994. Below, is a brief excerpt which features my recollection of that great day.

In my life as a sports fan, I’ve been to the Rose Bowl, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, and a slew of postseason basketball contests. None of those experiences have matched the leave of intensity of watching the Wildcats and the Wolverines battle on March 12, 1994.
When the game started it didn’t take long for Michigan’s Juwan Howard to take advantage of his superior size and athletic skills. His teammates seemed to be on a mission to get him the ball in the post. It was a mission which more often than not they were successful in accomplishing. In fact, by the day’s end Howard would set the Welsh-Ryan Arena record for field goals made in a single contest. It’s a record which still stands.

Much to my surprise, and the surprise of almost everyone at Welsh-Ryan that day, despite Howard’s prolific scoring, the ‘Cats were able to stay with the Wolverines throughout the first half. Every time Howard scored, Wildcats forward Cedric Neloms seemed to answer with a basket of his own. For every rebound Jalen Rose pulled down, the ‘Cats Kevin Rankin pulled down two.

As first half buzzer sounded I turned to my father who’d earlier predicted a Wildcat win and said, “You might be right.”

He smiled just slightly.

The second half was as even a half of basketball as I’ve ever seen. The teams’ play reminded me of two great heavyweight fighters battling in a title bout. Michigan was like a famous champ trying to apply the knock out blow, but the Wildcats, playing the role of the scrappy challenger, kept meeting those powerful blows with equally powerful counterpunches. To nobody’s surprise, when the clock stuck triple zero, the score was tied.

In overtime the Wildcats were carried by a trio of seniors who it appeared had no desire to see their careers conclude. First, Patrick Baldwin hit a three point jump shot from the top of the key just as the shot clock buzzer sounded. The basket gave the Wildcats the lead and sent me jumping out of my seat in pure purple exaltation. Pumped up as Baldwin’s basket made me, it was clear Michigan wasn’t ready fold it up and head home to Ann Arbor. It took Wildcat baskets from Baldwin’s follow seniors Kip Kirkpatrick and Kevin Rankin before the Wolverines appeared ready concede defeat.

When the game clock finally struck zero with the scoreboard reading Northwestern 97 Michigan 93, Welsh-Ryan Arena let out a roar which hasn’t been equaled in the fifteen years since. To my left, the student section rushed the court so quickly you would have thought Northwestern was offering free tuition to the first person to reach the N-Cat logo at the arena’s center.

I wanted to rush the court as well, but my father was too busy lifting me up with a big bear hug for me to get loose and charge over the security ropes as the students did. “You were right,” I said to him. “You said we were gonna win.”

Again he just smiled at me. This time, though, it was with a grin so wide it would have made the Cheshire Cat look only mildly content in comparison.

As looked around, I noticed my father’s wide grin had identical twins all throughout Welsh-Ryan.
Since the game was supposed to be the senior class’s last at home, Coach Ricky Byrdsong had arranged for the team’s seniors to address the crowd at the game’s conclusion. The plan had been for the seniors to stand at center court and speak to the crowd who would have stayed seated in their chairs at the game’s conclusion. Now, the crowd arrangement was a little different. Center court, actually most all of the court, was obscured by a horde of celebrating Northwestern students—the players among them.

With so many people on the court, and the players mixed in with their adoring fans, I wasn’t sure how the senior day ceremony could be conducted. Thankfully, Coach Byrdsong seemed to know how to deal with new crowd arrangement. He calmly took the public address microphone and asked for the crowd’s attention. Even those of us who’d remained in our seats were still celebrating in manner unseen in Welsh-Ryan before or since. After a few minutes, though, we all gave our attention to the man who’d just orchestrated one of the greatest wins in program history.

Standing in the midst of the students, Byrdsong proceeded to conduct the senior day ceremony.
After a few introductory remarks, he passed the microphone to each of the team’s five senior allowing them the chance to thank their parents, friends, and the fans.

The last player to speak was Kirkpatrick the senior who’d scored six points in the overtime period to lead the ‘Cats to victory. As he concluded his remarks, a giant smile appeared on his face and in his best impression of ESPN personality Dick Vitale he declared, “We’re goin’ to the NIT, baby!” The crowd erupted with the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard. The building literally shook.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Paulus to Syracuse

As loyal readers know I've been very interested in the story of former Duke point guard Greg Paulus and his quest to play college football this season. After weeks of considering possible schools, Paulus will play next year at Syracuse. Here's a link to the ESPN story: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=4166034

NU will play at Syracuse on Sept. 19th. I have some doubt that a guy who hasn't played football in 4 years and missed spring practice can really step in and play that well, but Syracuse was pretty awful the last few years (nice win over Notre Dame last year, though) so maybe Paulus can make a difference. It will be interesting to watch. If it works out, it will also be interesting to see if this starts a trend. Most college athletes played more than one sport in high school, and most were pretty good at their other sports too. If Paulus can swtich sports and play well in one post-grad year maybe others will try as well.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Some thoughts on Welsh-Ryan Arena

There has been some talk recently about making changes in Welsh-Ryan Arena. While little doubt exists some work needs to be done, I want to offer some positive thoughts on the Wildcat's home venue and offer so ways to perhaps get some more people to show up. Feel free to add your own.

The best thing about Welsh Ryan is the arena’s small size provides fans an intimate feel not available in the large event center type venues which have become common today. At Welsh-Ryan the fans are right on top of the action. From almost any seat you can get the sense you’re really part of the game. Those who sit on the baseline can literally reach out and touch the players when they inbound the ball from under the basketball. I wouldn’t recommend doing so, but the fact it’s possible tells you how close fans can get. Of course, nobody really knows this as Welsh-Ryan and Northwestern basketball are often so far below the radar they might as well be stealth.

Someone recently made the point that most famous arenas have some sort of nickname which makes them and the program they host easily identifiable. I don’t know if Welsh-Ryan really needs some sort of nickname, but any recruiting expert will tell you high school kids are drawn to colleges for any number of reasons—including the name recognition of the school and its athletic facilities. It’s the marketing principal of branding at work. Every high school basketball player in America knows the University of North Carolina wears powder blue and plays in “The Dean Dome” or Michigan State’s green t-shirt clad students help form “The Izzone”. On the other hand, I doubt most high school kids could pick Welsh-Ryan Arena or Northwestern’s purple jerseys out of a lineup. This needs to change. Maybe a hokey nickname isn’t the answer, I’ll admit it’s probably not, but somehow Northwestern needs to start selling Welsh-Ryan Arena to prospective players and fans. If I were Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody or Athletic Director Jim Phillips, I’d tell anyone who would listen, “When you walk into Welsh-Ryan Arena you’ll get the sense you’re at college basketball game.” In today’s increasingly corporate college sports world there aren’t many institutions who can say this. In recent years a slew of schools have sold naming rights to sponsors in order to build opulent new facilities. These facilities are spectacular, and usually have great food, but they give the college games played in them a watered down-NBA feel. I prefer Welsh-Ryan and other venues where I can get a legitimate college sports atmosphere.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Must Read:

Check out this very early preview for next season: http://forums.scout.com/mb.aspx?s=175&f=1101&t=4287857