By Chris Emma

By Chris Emma–

EVANSTON (CBS) — It was 25 years ago that Chris Collins first competed at Welsh-Ryan Arena, during a senior season at Glenbrook North in which he’d become Illinois’ Mr. Basketball.

He still recalls the packed house, with a palpable energy in the old building for a high school game. More than two decades later, Collins was named Northwestern’s head basketball coach and Welsh-Ryan Arena became his new home court.

“It was so loud,” Collins said of that sectional championship. “It was an amazing environment. That’s what I envisioned for this place to become.”

Collins has Northwestern poised for the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament berth, despite a 74-64 loss to Maryland on Wednesday. He’s building a winner, something fans can be proud of.

Finally, Collins has that environment he first witnessed 25 years ago. Welsh-Ryan Arena has become a legitimate home-court advantage. The buzz is growing in Evanston.

No longer are the students of this prestigious university staying behind to study or bringing books to the bleachers. The student section is now a factor from the start. On Wednesday, they even had a dancing student in a Speedo to distract Melo Trimble at the free-throw line.

“They’ve really been a factor in the games,” said junior point guard Bryant McIntosh, “where in the past, I didn’t think they were, to be really honest. To see them rally around us has been really critical for us, especially developing that home-court advantage.”

Historically speaking, Northwestern has never really housed a true home-court advantage. It’s often been the convenient arena for Chicago-based Big Ten alums to come see their team on the road.

Welsh-Ryan Arena has seen plenty of the orange of Illinois, the red of Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio State, the green of Michigan State and the maize of Michigan but never enough purple to become a daunting home court.

“It’s unique in the size where everybody is right on the court,” Collins said. “These conference games at home, it’s made a big difference for us. Our home-court advantage decided this year. Maybe in the past, it wasn’t that way.”

Certainly it wasn’t, but Northwestern has also never contended for the tournament until this season. In fact, the program hasn’t even been on the bubble on Selection Sunday. That’s all changing with Collins, who has followed through with building a program that can sustain success for years to come.

Collins arrived at Northwestern in 2013 and was offering promises of what the Wildcats could become. His vision for the program is becoming a reality, and he’s now backed by the university’s investment in its home court.

After this season, Northwestern will embark in a $110-million overhaul of the arena, which hasn’t changed much since its completion in 1953. The Wildcats will play the 2017-’18 season at Allstate Arena, which will then be vacated by DePaul. After that, Northwestern returns to a renovated home in 2018.

Few in Evanston are looking into the future. March is on their minds. Nerves are high as Northwestern continues its fight for the tournament.

Wednesday wasn’t the Wildcats’ night. McIntosh picked up two fouls in the opening minutes and Northwestern played most of the night without its two leading scorers, as Scottie Lindsey is still dealing with an illness. A late run pulled the Wildcats within eight in the final minutes, but it wasn’t mean to be.

Northwestern returns to its home floor Saturday when it hosts last-place Rutgers before a soldout crowd. It’s the next step in what’s been a historic season. Perhaps their home-court advantage can feed another key win.

“This year has been great,” Collins said. “It was something that I always envisioned.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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