CHICAGO — The Big Ten Tournament brings fans from across the Midwest, East Coast and beyond each year to watch their favorite schools and alma maters duke it out for a chance at the NCAA Tournament.
Over the last four seasons, the tournament has made stops in Indianapolis, Washington, D.C. and New York, so its return to Chicago has given Big Ten fans a chance to size up the United Center's new Atrium space, new restaurants and other changes.
We went to the United Center to ask random tournament-goers about their fandom and their impressions of the tournament.
Melissa Haniff (Northwestern) and Anna Brune (Maryland)
Maryland has only been in the Big Ten for seven years, but Anna Brune didn't hesitate when when asked whether her school shared a rivalry with her friend Melissa Haniff's Big Ten alma mater.
"No, because we're a lot better than Northwestern at sports usually," said Brune, a 25-year-old sports marketer who lives in Lake View.
"That is a terrible thing to say!" said Haniff, 24, a DePaul law school student from Lincoln Park. "Anna's dad went to Northwestern, so it makes it fun."
Haniff and Brune both went to Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., and called sports the cornerstone of their friendship. "We talk a lot about sports. Not much else," Brune said
Like many of her fellow Terrapins, basketball is the "go-to" for Brune. Haniff follows Wildcats softball closely.
Brune said she likes how the United Center feels like a neutral site. She's also not one of those Terrapins who longs for the old ACC days.
"I thought the Big Ten was a great opportunity for Maryland," she said. "We still get to see an ACC rival at least once a year with the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. I wish they'd give us Duke one more time, but we'll see if it ever happens."
Haniff admits Brune is not the only other Big Ten friend to pick on her school.
"Probably not as much as, like, Rutgers, but we do go get treated like the stepchild," she said. "I think, though, in the last few years, especially when I was in college, there's a lot more respect for Northwestern basketball especially after (two years ago) in the (NCAA) Tournament. With Chris Collins we have (received) a lot more respect with him."
Sabrina and Glynn Watson Sr. (Nebraska)
Thanks to the sparkly, red-and-white lettering on her T-shirt that blares "Huskers Basketball MOM" on the front and "Watson 5" on the back, Sabrina Watson's hard to miss.
And when her son, Nebraska's Glynn Watson Jr., (St. Joseph High School) is on the court, she's hard not to hear, too.
"You can hear her out there on the floor sometimes," Glynn Sr. said his son tells him.
The Watsons, of Bellwood, claim three basketball-playing sons, including former Illinois and current Austin Spurs G-League guard Demetri McCamey and former Southern Indiana guard DeAndre McCamey.
The Watsons traveled a lot for their games, including AAU, park district ball and high school and college tournaments. Glynn Jr.'s previous Big Ten tournaments took the parents to Indianapolis and New York.
"Runs that tab up quite a bit," Glynn Sr. said.
However, come this time next year, Sabrina hopes to be on a tropical island somewhere, and Glynn Sr. is ready for the change of scenery.
"He's a senior so that's going to be it for us," he said. "But it's been a good four years. We enjoyed ourselves. We don't mind ending it as well. It's come to an end."
Jerry and Andrea Nelson (Minnesota)
Minneapolis resident Jerry Nelson, 79, is as nuts for the Big Ten Tournament as he is for his Gophers. "I've been to all but two of them."
There's a lot he likes about having the tournament at the United Center, but his wife has at least one quibble.
"Truth? We'd rather be in Indianapolis," said Andrea, 78, echoing sentiments from a few other out-of-towners who attended the tournament on Wednesday. "Well mainly because we can walk to everything. Restaurants, arenas, bars, all within walking distance once you get there."
The United Center is "a great place to have the games but the location is the drawback for us. Mainly when we have to leave between sessions, in order to get to a place to grab food, it's a long way and they're very crowded."
Stadium officials clear out the stands between sessions and direct fans to the Atrium, where many camp out at Queenie's restaurant.
Jerry said, "The food (overall) is the best of any venue I've ever been in when you're here, but she hit it right on the head. ... It's not handy like in Indianapolis."
Shyamla Narayan (Illinois)
When the Big Ten's concerned, Shyamla Narayan's family has the bases covered.
She's die-hard Purdue, class of 1991, though she was wearing an Illini hoodie to support her son, Rohin, who plays in the band.
"As long as they're not playing Purdue, I'm happy to support the team that my son goes, too," the 50-something homemaker said.
Daughter Anushri Kartik-Narayan goes to Wisconsin, but she's taking mid-terms and couldn't make the tournament.
As for her husband, Subramanian Kartik, "I'm married to a Hoosier," Narayan said. "So we don't watch too many Purdue-Indiana games too often."
The rivalry was even more intense early on the marriage, back in the days of Gene Keady and Bobby Knight. Today, they're a little calmer.
Narayan and her husband go to Bulls and Blackhawks games regularly, so they're familiar with the United Center, but timing worked in their favor with the Big Ten Tournament. The schedule pitted Illinois against Northwestern on the first day, so tickets were much easier to come by, she said.
"Then we found out that our son was also driving up, so we said, 'OK.'"
Jack Molenaar (Rutgers)
Talk about a small world.
Jack Molenaar and co-worker Maureen Yewaisis, both employees for Rutgers University's transportation services department, didn't know if there'd be any other Scarlet Knights fans in town for the Big Ten Tournament. But after they attended Rosemont's Parking Industry Expo on Wednesday, they made a pit stop at Park Tavern near the United Center.
"We're sitting there and all of sudden (Molenaar) looks over my shoulder and he's like, 'Oh my god, look who's here?' And I'm thinking it's someone from our parking conference, but it's (athletic director) Pat Hobbs and the whole Rutgers athletics doing an alumni event upstairs," Yewaisis said. "And we're like, 'Shut up.' "
Molenaar, a resident of Fanwood, N.J., has been a Knights basketball season-ticket holder for 15 years, but the parking conference gave him an excuse to go to his first Big Ten Tournament since Rutgers started conference play in 2014-15. He likes the United Center as a venue, but it doesn't quite capture the atmosphere of The RAC -- Rutgers Athletic Center.
"If you've ever been to Rutgers' place, it's just loud," he said. "It's really, really tight and just on top of the game. So it's really cool."
As for his team? "We're not that good yet. We were actually better this year than we've been in other years."
Molenaar really likes third-year coach Steve Pikiell, but chances are some of Rutgers' players aren't too fond of Molenaar's work.
"I'm in charge of everything parking and busing," said Molenaar, who is senior director of the school's department of transportation service. "So any of these players who got parking tickets (on campus), that would have been from me."
Tony and Kimberly Goergen (Minnesota)
When Tony Goergen heard the Big Ten Tournament was returning to Chicago, the 64-year-old retired IBM employee decided to make the 5 1/2 drive from Rochester, Minn., with his daughter Kimberly, 33.
"I have three daughters that all went to Minnesota. But I was a Gopher fan prior to that, ever since I was a little kid," said Tony, who graduated from Minnesota State Mankato.
The father and daughter rented an Airbnb in Wicker Parker and have enjoyed how close it is to plenty of bars and restaurants. They had just arrived at the United Center on Wednesday and hadn't formed an impression yet.
"To be honest with you I've heard people say, 'Hey, you should go to Indianapolis,'" Tony said. "Where they play it's right downtown. So there's so much stuff around between sessions, it's just right there."
Joshua Larsen, Joe Cory and Andrew Gross (Iowa)
Joshua Larsen, Joe Cory and Andrew Gross have been going to conference tournaments together for five years, whether they're watching Cory's Iowa State Cyclones in the Big 12 or to see Larsen's and Gross' Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten.
They all met through cycling -- the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa -- and became fast friends.
"What's really cool about the Big Ten Tournament is everybody supports everybody else," said Gross, an educator. "When an Iowa game comes up you'll see Michigan, you'll see other schools say, 'Good luck at the games today.' "
Naturally, Iowa-Iowa State battles are like the "Super Bowl," said Cory, West Des Moines' deputy public services director.
But Larsen struggled at first to come up with a Hawkeyes rivalry as intense within their own conference.
"If I had to choose one I'd say Wisconsin," said Larsen, an Iowa court system employee who used to work for the Big Ten. "They're the closest. They're only about 2 1/2 hours away
"We fight for the same recruits," Cory said.
The three friends are into craft beers and planned to sample Chicago brands such as Goose Island after the games, intent on walking to bars from the United Center even though many of them are blocks away from the stadium.
Larsen said, "I'm really wanting to kind of check out the area here that has improved.
"In Indianapolis, that's the one great thing that they have is all of the hotels and the restaurants are within walking distance."