When word started to spread about men’s basketball’s exhibition game at Northwestern, us sports fans at the Maroon began planning the Evanston Invasion. Our team was headed to the big time of collegiate sports, and just as the squad was eager to show it could keep up with D-I opponents, we were eager to show our worth as fans.
On paper, the matchup looked pretty even-keeled. There was the DI–DIII divide, but the Wildcats went 13–18 overall last year with a 2–14 Big Ten record, while the 2006–2007 Maroons posted a 20–6, 11–3 mark en route to a NCAA bid and a shared UAA title.
This would be a ball game as well as an opportunity to showcase both the grit of athletes and phanatix from the campus where fun famously comes to die.
Admittedly, the mystique of traveling up to D-I territory might have gone to my head a bit. Working out details on the car ride, I couldn’t help but imagine a packed arena with a small but proud section of maroon standing out in a crowd of purple and white. There was even talk within the group of making signs and whipping out the face paint for the big game. This was Chicago’s chance on the big stage as fans, and I was definitely prepared for battle.
Then, the Wildcats didn’t show up to fight. The contest on the court lived up to expectations, but a bare Northwestern student section and empty seats surrounding the few season ticket holders in the stands toned down the thrill of the showdown.
Wednesday night had all the makings of a dramatic contest, too. Twice Northwestern pulled ahead by huge margins and both times the Maroons crept back into the game. The low point for Chicago came with 9:11 left on the clock and the team down by 19 points at 68–49. While the Wildcats never lost a hold of the lead, the South Siders refused to be put down easily and the double-digit advantage was cut down to a mere eight for a score of 84–76 at the final buzzer.
As the Maroons climbed back into the game, the question of whether DIII could handle the pace of DI was starting to be answered. Northwestern may be at the bottom of the Big Ten barrel, but they’re still DI, and Chicago forced the Wildcats to take the game seriously.
What remained unsolved at the end of the night was whether or not DI truly offered a hands-down pinnacle of collegiate sports experience for fans.
The expedition up to Evanston showed what happens when a program tries to create a spectacle around a team that can’t live up to the hype. With elderly ushers donning official windbreakers, a souvenir stand, $10 tickets for non-Wildcats, and $6 personal pizzas, Welsh-Ryan Arena definitely pushed for hoops as a major event.
The only problem is that nobody showed up. Sure, it was only an exhibition game for Northwestern, but the fact that it marked the first chance to catch a glimpse of the 2007–2008 team should have brought people out to Wildcat Alley. Without the swarms of fans decked out in purple and white, it was hard to ignore all the failed attempts to sell Northwestern basketball as semi-professional.
This isn’t to say that all D-I matchups end in the same kind of flop. There’s way too much media buildup around BCS football and March Madness to give any weight to that claim. However, when DI falls short of selling a high level of excitement, it starts throwing light on what DIII sports do right.
If anything, a D-III contest strips college athletics down to its core. Without any of the glitz of a big arena or TV coverage, there’s nothing to focus on but the game, leaving it completely up to the players and the action to rile up the fans.
After the jaunt up to the North Side, I can say it feels good to be back in Hyde Park and the DIII, where the pizza is free, and we don’t pretend to be anything but college students enjoying the game.