The “Catournament” Journal: Northwestern support easy to find in Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 16: Northwestern Wildcats fans cheer in the second half against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 16, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – Did you ever think anyone would utter the words “Welsh-Ryan West” in your lifetime?

We’ll that’s what happens when you make an NCAA Tournament for the first time. Things a fan thought they would never see or hear tend to come to pass.

Indeed that was the case on Thursday as a very pro-Northwestern crowd filled the Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City wearing their purple while cheering for the team in white. It was noticeable in the arena and even those watching on the broadcast that the Wildcats had a bit of a home floor feel in their first round victory over Vanderbilt.

“I think it’s a little surprising,” admitted guard Bryant McIntosh of the big Northwestern following in Salt Lake City. “But when you do something for first time I think you’re going to get a following that’s a little different than what you’re accustomed to. It’s nice to have that following.

“And I think our athletic department has done a great job of supporting us as well.”

That not only includes the staff under head coach Chris Collins or athletic director Jim Phillips, but also fellow coaches.

Football coach Pat Fitzgerald has been one of the team’s biggest supporters and has made the trip to Salt Lake City to be apart of the madness.

Fitzgerald even got his way into the postgame celebration in the locker room on Thursday.

A number of former players have also made their way to Salt Lake City to watch the history unfold for themselves, including current Georgia Tech assistant Tavaras Hardy. Even with his team in the NIT, Hardy was allowed to fly to Salt Lake City to watch the game. Around 30 other former players were also in the stands for the victory over Vanderbilt.

While traditionally neutral, a number of prominent media alumni of the school haven’t hesitated to wear the purple during the NCAA Tournament run.

ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols was in the locker room after the victory and grabbed a picture with the team – and she’s not alone among those in the media who headed West.

“It was unbelievable to look up in the stands and hear the chants about us,” said forward Sanjay Lumpkin of all those that have come to Utah to cheer the team on. “It was awesome to be obviously in that moment and just be here, and knowing that our fans have our back like that, it was awesome.”

Northwestern will need it again for arguably their biggest challenge of the season to date – a second round game with West Region top seed Gonzaga on Saturday.

“When we get in these atmospheres, there’s a confidence and belief that we belong. And I like that,” said head coach Chris Collins of Saturday’s game. You have no chance to be successful if you don’t have that belief and confidence in yourself. So that’s why for us we don’t really view ourselves as a Cinderella story because we feel we’ve played a great schedule. We’ve played a lot of high-level teams and we’ve done well.

“This is just another example of that. We need to use our experiences that we went through in the conference, in the preseason to carry it out tomorrow when it matters most on the biggest stage in the NCAA tournament.”

They can probably count on a lot of purple in the stands when they try to make that happen.