Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Minnesota Golden Gophers 83 at Northwestern Wildcats 57 (NCAA Basketball, Big Ten) - February 23, 2020

After a busy Saturday, I only had one game to see on Sunday. It would again be a power conference stinker as 1-14 Northwestern hosted 6-9 Minnesota. MN is also the state postal abbreviation for Minnesota, a sign that Northwestern might be mailing this one in.

The Wildcats play out of Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, which is easily accessible from Chicago via CTA's Purple Line, which begins at Howard (outside of the weekday rush, when it goes all the way downtown), which also happens to be the north terminus of the Red Line. Disembarking at Central, I walked 10 minutes or so, following another fan who turned to ask me if I was also going to the game. After I confirmed that we were headed in the same direction, he quickly told me just how awful the team is, going through the entire lineup and describing why each player was crap. I mentioned my visit to Chicago State yesterday, and he suggested the Cougars could beat the Wildcats, that's how bad they were. Doubtful, but at any rate, he entered while I went to look for a ticket.

The box office is located inside the alcove to the left in the photo below. Just to the right is the football stadium. I really wish the two seasons had more overlap; the problem with NCAA football is that almost every game is on Saturday, so road trips are generally limited to one game.

Face value for this snoozer started at $40, a ridiculous price given the quality of the team. I hung around outside for a bit hoping for a freebie, but eventually settled on the secondary market, still overpaying but needing to get in to take my usual tour.

Welsh-Ryan Arena first opened in 1952 as McGaw Memorial Hall and has undergone two extensive renovations since then. The first, in 1983, was when the arena received its current moniker after the project's major donor and his wife's parents. The second refurbishment came in 2017-18, during which the arena was completely closed for the season. Bleachers were replaced with chairbacks, reducing capacity to 7,039, making it the smallest hoops venue in the Big Ten. There is a display describing the arena's history as well as its benefactors just inside the main entrance (above).

Northwestern basketball has been terrible for years, with their first tournament appearance not coming until 2017. As such, there isn't a lot here, but a couple of Hall of Fame video kiosks are worth your time (above).

As well, the most accomplished inductees are given individual displays. Two caught my eye, with the first being Billy McKinney, whose unrelated namesake is a Blue Jay, and Otto Graham, who was an All-American in both football and basketball before becoming an early NFL star.

I spent time wandering around the lower concourse, but you cannot complete a circuit because one side is a club area. You can see the club in the shot below, with the seats a lighter shade of purple than those on either side.

Other than that though, ushers don't check tickets, so I sat in a number of different spots. You can also stand right at midcourt across from the club, behind the handicap section, which is where the above photo was taken.

The sidelines on the other side are open, though sections are incredibly long, going all the way to 29 seats. In other words, you need to crawl over 14 people if you are the unfortunate fan who gets seat 15 in that row. Any section with more than 16 seats is too long, but 29 is unbelievable, especially in such a small venue.

Section 107 (in the foreground above) is also a bit odd, in that as you move down towards the front, the seats on the left aisle go up in number, while the seats at the right aisle remain at 29.

For those who want to avoid the seating bowl entirely, there are white tables along both the upper and lower concourses. Although some are reserved, others are not and anyone can sit there. There are even some looking at center court, though even the unreserved ones were taken by the time I got there.

With such a small capacity, there is not a bad seat in the place. For the second half, I sat on the benches behind one of the nets, which I enjoyed quite a bit. It was fun to sit near the Northwestern cheer squad, who seemed oblivious to the beating their team was right in front of them.

There are stairs at every corner to take you to the upper concourse, which is very spacious and still relatively close to the floor. There are concessions up here too and they were devoid of lines, a welcome change from the previous day at UIC.

If I had to complain, the only thing that annoyed me here (other than the nonsensical prices) was the fact that Coke Zero is served only in fountain form, not in bottles, which are easier to keep after the game. There was one other troubling event however, as the Northwestern mascot, Willie the Wildcat, was accosted by several wayward youths who demanded a better team next year.

Overall, Welsh-Ryan is a surprisingly simple venue that I enjoyed quite a bit. I like being able to move around and although the club area limits you somewhat, the rest of the arena is very accessible. If you want to see a professional portrait of the venue, check out Jack Porter's very impressive photo gallery.

The Game 

Like all three games I saw on Saturday, there was a Canadian in the starting lineup, as Minnesota's Marcus Carr (#5 below) is a Torontonian. He is being guarded by Boo Buie, who has one of the best names in college sports. You can never cheer him, either Boo him when he does well, or boo him when he doesn't.

The Wildcats had a 6-5 advantage early, but when Gopher Daniel Otoru sank a three, that was the last Northwestern saw of the lead. Shortly thereafter, a 12-3 run for Minnesota made it 27-15, and they finished the half on a 7-0 spurt to go up 44-28.

The second half was similar, as the Gophers continued to play strong at both ends of the court. Midway through the period they were up 63-39 and the rest of the game was mostly even as Minnesota won handily 83-57. Otoru was the star with 22 points and 12 boards, while nobody on Northwestern did anything worth noting, just as the fan had told me before the game.

The Gophers were 14-30 from beyond the arc and 16-32 inside. Northwestern was a decent 21-44 close in, but their 3-18 mark from downtown doomed them. The game was fast as the refs only called 27 fouls, doubtless wanting to avoid making this game go any longer than necessary.


Seeing these four venues in just over 24 hours was a lot of fun and has put college hoops at the forefront of my sports road trip plans. Welsh-Ryan Arena was my 102nd NCAA hoops venue, but only 89 count towards the dream total of 388, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. I hope to see five more this season, and then slowly chip away at the remaining 294 over the next decade. Which means the blog will be going on until at least 2030. So stay tuned!



Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Georgetown Hoyas 68 at DePaul Blue Demons 74 (NCAA Basketball, Big East) - February 22, 2020

The final game of the Chicago college hoops tripleheader was at Wintrust Arena, where the DePaul men play. As the game was not until 8:00, there was no need to worry about being late, especially with my hotel right across from the arena. I used the time to relax and enjoy a pint at Motor Row Brewing down the street. Another option is Fatpour Tap Works, which was packed before the game, but made an excellent place to stop afterwards and watch endless replays of emergency backup goalie David Ayres defeating the Leafs.

Thanks to a bit of luck, I had found a free ticket via Twitter and met the generous gent, a DePaul alumnus and season ticket holder, about 15 minutes before the game. Though with DePaul at 1-12 in the Big East and visitors Georgetown at 5-8, generous might be a bit much. For me though, I knew it would be the best basketball I would see all weekend and was excited to complete the trifecta in style. Thanks Dave for the ticket!

Wintrust Arena was opened in 2017 amid controversy for its use of public funds, particularly given the 50 public schools were being closed around the same time. It is part of the McCormick Place convention center complex, a short walk along Cermak Avenue from Red and Green Line stations. Security was surprisingly quick because you don't have to take anything out of your pockets; only bags were being inspected. Did you read that every other sports venue out there? You don't have to take anything out of your pockets! In Chicago!

Inside, there is a large lobby that leads to two escalators -the first takes you to the main concourse, while the second goes up to the second level. I did a quick tour around the lower concourse and spotted a display case filled with plaques celebrating athletic accomplishments (above) The women have made the Sweet 16 three times, while the men have not had much recent success, with an NCAA second-round appearance in 2004 the latest. Unless you count the CBI runner-up trophy from last year. Which I don't.

The Blue Demons joined the original Big East conference in 2005 and since then, their conference record is 84-227 (37%). This is a far cry from the Independent team coached by Ray Meyer from 1942-84 that made the tournament 13 times, including a Final Four appearance in 1979, losing to Larry Bird's Indiana State team.

Moving up to the second level, I enjoyed the large banners hanging over the lobby and escalators (above).

What I appreciated most about the venue was the unique seating setup in some areas. In the upper level at one end, there is a Demon Deck, a standing area that caters mostly to students but is open to all. Below this is a seating area that hangs almost right over the court and provides an unusual angle (above).

I also liked the separated sections such as 205-207 at the top of the photo above. I've begun to enjoy sitting in the corners for basketball and I spent a few minutes here. I even think I saw former Georgetown coach John Thompson sitting here just before halftime. The view from these sections is below. Not bad as you can stretch out and have an entire row to yourself.

This is a relatively compact arena and there really aren't any bad seats in the place.

There are two level of suites along one side of the upper level that are not open to the general public, visible above the ribbon boards in the photo below.

During halftime, I continued to tour and grabbed a picture from the upper deck at midcourt. This is the best place to see the Chicago skyline on the floor. Notice the Chinese dancers; it was Chinese New Year celebration and there was quite a nice show put on during the intermission.

The scoreboard is impressive, as you would expect for a Big East team.

Another thing I liked was seeing the ribbon boards for more than just advertising. Specifically, plenty of detailed stats that give you an idea of how the game was progressing.

For the second half, I moved down to a corner seat just a couple of rows from the floor. Ushers were nowhere to be seen and I spent the entire half there.

Overall, 1 really enjoyed Wintrust Arena, particularly after the poor experience that afternoon at UIC. Concessions were plentiful with no lines, and I was able to move around and sit in a variety of spots.
The game turned out to be decent as well, a nice way to end a very busy day.

The Game 

For the third time in as many games, there was a starter from Canada as Brampton's Jahvon Blair suited up for the Hoyas. DePaul also has a Canuck on their roster, Nick Ongenda from Mississauga, who came off the bench. The first half was evenly played, with both teams taking small leads only to find the other climbing back. The referees were auditioning for the tournament, calling 23 fouls, plus a technical against Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing for complaining about their crap officiating. There were 23 total free throws as the teams finished the half all even at 36.

The second half was much better as the refs relaxed a bit, calling only 11 fouls in the first 19 minutes, while the teams kept things close. Leading 58-57 with 5:51 to go, De Paul went on a 6-0 run over the next 90 seconds. Georgetown then went cold, missing six shots and turning the ball over twice, with only offensive rebounding keeping them in the game. Down 66-61 with just over a minute to go, they began to foul. They needed three fouls to put De Paul in the bonus and Jaylez Butz missed the first of the one-and-one but Romeo Weems grabbed the offensive board, forcing Georgetown to foul again. Charlie Moore sank both, but Terrell Allen responded immediately for the Hoyas with a layup. Another foul on Moore, who missed one of the two shots, and then stupidly fouled Allen on a three-point attempt. Allen made all three to get it to 69-66 with 32 seconds left, but the Hoyas had to continue to foul. Paul Reed made two, and when Jamorko Pickett missed a three for Georgetown, the rest was academic as DePaul won 74-68, only their second conference win of the season.

I questioned the wisdom of fouling down 5 with a minute to go, but it was actually a good strategy except Georgetown couldn't grab the rebound off the missed free throw. The 1-and-1 does lead to some interesting endgames in college hoops, though this was not one of them. Still, I enjoyed it immensely and returned to my hotel happy to have completed my first true tripleheader.


The DePaul women play some games at McGrath-Phillips Arena, which means I will be there at some point. I expect that is where most of the history and memorabilia can be found. Loyola-Chicago is the other school in the Windy City, and Northern Illinois is about 65 miles west. So I'll be looking for a weekend next season when all three are home to complete the Chicagoland portion of my unofficial Quest for 388.

As part of the Chinese New Year celebration, there was a chopstick contest where the two participants had to move M&Ms from a bowl to a cup using chopsticks. Not as easy as it sounds. Sitting right there, I found this very amusing, especially the mascot DIBS' intense observation. It would have been funny if he had participated as well. Or maybe that would be cultural appropriation, as Demons don't normally use chopsticks.



Monday, February 24, 2020

IUPUI Jaguars 72 at UIC Flames 77 (NCAA Basketball, Horizon League) - February 22, 2020

After watching the worst team in college basketball, it was time to head north to see the 23rd-worst team in college basketball, at least according to the KenPom rankings. In this case however, it was the visiting team who were the offending squad, as the Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis Jaguars came in with a conference record of 2-13. The school goes by the abbreviation IUPUI, with the PU part quite accurate, as this team stinks. Their opponents were the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) Flames in a game that matched two Horizon League acronyms.

The Flames play at Credit Union 1 Arena, which was until recently the UIC Pavilion before the naming rights were sold. The stadium is located on the southeast corner of Racine and Congress Parkway, just south of l-290. It opened in 1982 and has a capacity of 9,500. With the Chicago State game finishing at 1:45, I had plenty of time to take the Red Line back downtown and switch to the Blue Line for a short trip west to Racine. But the Chicago Transit Authority had taken a page from my friends at NYC's MTA and was running trains at very long intervals. When I just missed the connection at Jackson, the next Blue Line train wasn't for 20 minutes. I considered other options but even a rideshare or taxi would only save a few minutes, so I walked one station further to calm down and eventually got to Racine at 2:55, still in time for the 3:12 tip. If the start time was set for 3 sharp, I would have been late and possibly missed the chance for the true tripleheader, so thanks to whoever decided the odd start time (possibly in relation to Goose Island's 312 beer, which was a promotion that the White Sox held some years back). Update: it was mentioned in the comments that 312 was Chicago's area code, which explains the beer. Can't figure out why UIC is starting their games at that time without some promotional tie-in.

The ticket window is a block south at Harrison Street, which is also where the main entrance is. A ten-spot will get you in with assigned seats. By the time I had passed through security (only a couple of minutes but could have been much shorter as they had shut most of the lanes), the anthem had begun, so I did not get much chance to tour.

During my brief walkabout, I noticed that there was just a single concession stand, which was quite surprising given that there were about 2,000 fans on hand for the game. I checked during a couple of the media timeouts and it was always lined up at least 30 deep so I waited until halftime, but that made little difference. The line moved so slowly that even after 15 minutes I had yet to reach the front. It turns out there were only two cashiers, but the line split into three. Of course, those in the line without a cashier directly in front of them were screwed. I gave up, saving my money for something after the game. I have never seen such poor service at a concession in all my years of attending sporting events. To make matters worse, I wanted a beer, but the only draft they had was Bud/Bud Light, with the specialty draft (Lagunitas IPA, so specialty is a stretch) tap inoperational.

I did find a seat that I liked, at the back of a section near center court, where the middle seats in the last couple of rows had been removed. This allowed access to middle seats in the third-last row without having to climb over people to get there, and you didn't have to worry about people climbing over you either. But the view was not the best, because the seating bowl is on a very slight angle, so you are quite far away (below).

In addition, the seating bowl is quite far away from the court, so much so that the first four rows are covered by a sheet since the view would be blocked by the courtside seats.

The upper deck would be a better place to sit, but this was closed off. I understand why they do this as fans are complete slobs (assuming they have the patience to wait at the concession stand) and there is no reason to force the staff to clean a whole other level, but it just added to my frustration.

Another thing that annoyed me: the mascot, Sparky, is clearly a Raptor rip-off.

Walking around the venue, I saw another concession stand that was inexplicably closed. The only bit I enjoyed was the cardboard cutouts of some of the players; I particularly liked the uniform in the shot of Jacob Wiley below.

There was one unique promotion as well. During one of the timeouts, the cheer team goes into the balcony and tosses down bags of Flaming Cheetos. Get it? The Flames and Flaming Cheetos? Despite being famished, I did not rush to grab one.

UIC has a bit of history and retired numbers are on blue banners hung in front of a curtain at one end of the arena (above), while across the way are the banners celebrating the school's athletic accomplishments in red. The Flames have three NCAA tournament appearances, losing all of them. They did make the final of the 2018 CIT, losing to Northern Colorado, but that banner is not displayed, thankfully.

Between the two sets of banners is a large party area that seems to have no view of the court whatsoever. You can see the red banners in the distance in the photo above.

Overall, Credit Union 1 Arena quickly became my least favourite on-campus venue; a disappointment considering it was my 100th NCAA basketball venue. I simply didn't enjoy any of it: the wait at security, the seating bowl, the closed upper deck, the concession stand debacle and the lack of good beer. But maybe I would get a good game to make it all worthwhile? Not bloody likely.

The Game

UIC was 8-7 in conference play and a 9-point favourite. As in the earlier game, there was a starter from Canada as UIC's Marcus Ottey hails from Ajax. The Flames took an early lead scoring the first 10 points, but IUPUI chipped away, getting within a point late in the half after a technical foul against Tarkus Ferguson led to four straight free throws for the Jaguars. The Flames scored the next 6 before IUPUI finished the half with a jumper from Marcus Burk to make it 35-30 UIC at the interval.

It was a quick half with just 14 fouls and I hoped for a similar second half, but the officials must have wanted more exposure on ESPN3, calling fouls on a regular basis, including four in a 54-second span. This slowed the game considerably, and irritated my hungry self to no end. Add in a pointless review and an extra media timeout, and the second half took over an hour. As for the game, it was actually entertaining when they got to play. IUPUI came within one on four occasions, and then tied the game at 60, 66, and 67, the last coming with 2:42 left. But they simply were unable to get the lead. Knotted at 67, Ferguson completed a hoop-and-harm play but Gavin Weatherford quickly scored two for the visitors to get them within a point yet again. Ottey followed with a trey and then fouled Jaylen Minnett on IUPUl's next possession. Minnett missed one of two, after which Ferguson committed an offensive foul on the Flames possession. Canadian Godwin Boahen fouled Burk, who made both to again narrow the deficit to a single point with 34 seconds left. On the following possession, Ferguson made up for his earlier gaffe, draining a jumper after the Flames wisely took 26 seconds off the clock. Despite having a timeout remaining, IUPUI ran a play and Burk missed an unlikely three-pointer. The rebound was similarly bricked from in close, forcing the Jaguars to foul with a second remaining. Jordan Blount (from Ireland) sank both to make the final 77-72 for UIC.

It was amazing that IUPUI never had the lead despite being tied thrice and within a point seven other times. Burk led all scorers with 28, while Ottey paced the Flames with 16. The difference was free throws, with UIC knocking down 19-26 (not exactly impressive at 73.1%) while IUPUI was an abysmal 48.1% at 13-27.


The only college hoops venue I prefer less than this is Webster Bank Arena, where Fairfield plays. At least they have an on-campus gym that they use sometimes, and I will be visiting that next week to see how it compares.