Men’s Basketball: ‘I can’t talk enough about the support’: Northwestern fans journey from far and wide to support the Wildcats in the Big Dance


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern fans cheer during the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament opener against Boise State.

Lawrence Price and Alex Cervantes

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In Northwestern’s two NCAA Tournament appearances there’s been one distinct similarity between 2017 and 2023. 

Both times, the Cats were dealt a hand in the West region — Salt Lake City, Utah, six years ago and Sacramento, California, this season. It was an opportunity for NU to compete and travel to areas of the country it usually doesn’t venture to. 

However, the positives of playing on the West Coast do come with the cons. Around 1,800 miles separate Welsh-Ryan Arena and the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, enhancing the challenges for students, alumni and fans to follow the team out west. 

Weinberg senior Alicia Webb flew into Los Angeles, California at 1:00 a.m. Thursday before taking a nine-hour train ride up to Sacramento. Upon arrival, Webb said she was “shocked” to see the contingent of purple enveloping Punch Bowl Social and the arena ahead of Thursday’s tipoff against Boise State. 

“I’m really happy this team will have this support,” Webb said. “It’s really important because it shows them that we believe in them. We didn’t all come here just to leave (Friday).”

Webb wasn’t the only Wildcat fan that found a way to see NU play in-person — over 900 fans attended the pre-game N Zone pep rally. This included 16-year-old Charlie Wright, who wore purple-and-white overalls to go along with an NU flag draped over his back.

Charlie Wright became a fan of the Cats before speaking his first words. His dad, Mike Wright (SESP ’94), played safety at NU in the early ’90s. Growing up, Charlie Wright attended many basketball and football games in Evanston, and has still held true to this tradition. He said he went around seven or eight games this season, including the Cats’ win over then-No. 15 Indiana at Assembly Hall.

Charlie Wright added that he and his family made the trip to Salt Lake City back in 2017 during NU’s first Big Dance appearance. He hoped for another exciting output this time around.

“They don’t make it to March Madness often, this is only the second time in school history, so you know I gotta go all out,” Wright said. “I went all out the first time, so I was like, I gotta go all out again.”

While Charlie Wright only had to wait 10 years to see the Cats dance, Kevin Blackistone (Medill ’81) had to wait 36 years after graduating. Returning back to the school for many events throughout the years, he was never able to scratch this off the checklist until 2017.  

Before the 2022-23 season, Blackistone returned to Evanston for Homecoming in the fall and had a chance encounter with senior guard Boo Buie while walking towards Ryan Field.

“I stopped him,” Blackistone said. “I’m like, ‘Boo, what you got for us this year?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, we got something for you this year.’ Well, when they lost to Pittsburgh I wasn’t sure if he had anything for us this year, but he proved to be a man of his words.”

Buie’s preseason assuredness held true as the Cats secured the program’s second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. 

When NU went dancing in 2017, Blackistone “dropped everything” to make it to Salt Lake City. This season was a similar story, especially after NU’s five-game win streak in mid-February all but locked up a bid to the Big Dance. The decision between him and his buddies was made quickly, tickets were secured and the meet-up in Sacramento was finalized. 

The Cats noticed the support, too. As fans filtered in for Thursday’s second session, a sea of purple engulfed the arena. The pregame and in-game chants were loud and plentiful. Sophomore guard Brooks Barnhizer said the support from the NU faithful was indescribable, “almost unfathomable.” 

With NU’s victory over the Broncos, the Cats’ clash with UCLA in the Round of 32 presents another opportunity for fans to fill the seats in the arena. Collins said Friday that both of the program’s NCAA Tournament appearances have illustrated the “power of the Northwestern fan base nationally.” He heard even more people will be in attendance on Saturday.

About 355 miles stand between UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion and the Golden 1 Center, illustrating the lessened level of difficulty for Bruin fans to make the trip than Cats fans from Evanston. Evidently, though, no distance is too far for NU fans. 

“I can’t talk enough about the support,” Buie said. “To travel across the country and just see so much purple is just unbelievable … Going out there and just hearing that applause when you run out, kind of make it feel like a home game. I couldn’t be more grateful for them. They’ve been here all year for us.”

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