Nerves February 21, 2013
I start by pacing at the commercial break. This isn’t difficult, because I watch 80% of all Illini football and basketball games by standing next to my television, so I’m already on my feet. But once we hit the 12 minute mark and we’re not pulling away, I start pacing.
My path is simple. One big “L”. The television is in the main room. To the left is a little sun room that doubles as my wife’s home office. To the right is the dining room. On the far side of the dining room, the doorway to the kitchen. So at the start of the commercial break, I go all the way to the piano in the sun room, turn around, walk past the television, through the dining room, turn into the kitchen, and walk all the way to the back door. Return to the television, see if it’s on, if not, repeat. I fumble with my phone, I talk to the dog – I’m generally a mess.
When the game comes back on, I change my routine. I can stand still for most of it, but sometimes I need to move around to calm myself down. So I utilize this little hallway leading away from the main room that goes into my home office (world headquarters of ALE, Inc.). From the far wall of the office, I can still see the television. So sometimes I’ll stand still, but sometimes I’ll just slowly back into the office with my eyes glued to the TV. My kids could totally do the “kneel down and watch me back over them” thing if they wanted to. Wait, they might read this. Don’t do that, Nick.
After our first half performance at the line, I really struggled to watch the free throws in the second half. I’ve spoken before about my go-to move. Go to that doorway that leads to the office, stand behind it, watch the free throws with one eye. Yes, really. As we’ve covered so many times, I am a Bruce Weber-level ninny when it comes to my nerves and Illini sports. I can barely take it. I want to win so bad.
This game might have produced my worst antics ever. Actually, I take that back. There was an Big Ten Tournament game against Indiana in, what, 2007? We needed it to lock up a tourney bid. The game was back and forth, and I was a pacing fool. Couldn’t stand still for a second. I wanted that win like I wanted my acceptance letter to UofI.
Same with this game. Ever since we beat Minnesota (more specifically, ever since that NCAA mock committee meeting put us as a 5-seed with a .680 winning percentage), I realized that seven Big Ten wins would probably get us in. It would be close, and our seed wouldn’t be pretty, but wins over Indiana, Gonzaga, Ohio State, and Butler would put us in the tourney at 20-13.
And before the season, I set a tourney bid as my gravy point. Get in, and everything else is that sausage gravy they poured over a Haystack at the Homestretch. Can I get an amen from the early 90′s?
So tonight was about clearing the hurdle. Win, and I can relax. Yes, I’d still be nervous if we lost our last four and then bowed out in the first round of the BTT. Just like I was nervous in 2007 (when we got a 12 seed and were one of the last teams in). But I also kind of know that we won’t have to worry about that. We’re not going to lose to Nebraska at home on Senior Day. And we’ll probably even win our opening game in the BTT. And we might win at Iowa. And Michigan and Ohio State have struggled at home of late. Because of all that – because a win tonight meant absolute worst case was 21-11 going into the BTT – I just wanted to get the W.
And then all of that happened. And I got nervous. “You know, Penn State is about as bad of a loss as you could add to the resume. Are you absolutely certain 7-11 gets you in if it includes a PSU loss? Lose this, and you have to beat Nebraska just to get to 7-11. Gotta win at Iowa to get to 8-10. Man, a loss here would just ruin everything we’ve built over the last two weeks.” My brain can be a real jerk sometimes.
But then Nnanna went on a little 4-0 run, and we pushed the lead to eight, and I stopped pacing for a bit. Finally, we’re going to put this one away. Nope – four point game again.
Then we pushed is to six and held there for a while, and I breathed a little easier, but then that lefty hit a three to cut it to a one possession game with less than three minutes left. At that point I went to the whole running-fingers-through-my-hair bit. Remember during the Ohio State football game in 2007 when Juice got that second-to-last first down and the cameras cut to an Ohio State fan taking his hat off and aggressively running his fingers through his hair? That was me after the lefty’s three.
Thankfully, BPfor3 answered right back, and we were back to that semi-comfortable six point margin. But I wasn’t done pacing. Because we’d need free throws to put the game away. And I needed a new routine.
Instead of “hide in the doorway and peek around the corner to watch the free throws” (I watched the Indiana game on the television in the bedroom, and when Brandon had those two free throws to tie, I actually hid behind the curtains so I could do my watch-with-one-eye routine – I’m anxiety-riddled Bruce Weber, through and through), I chose a new method. I would watch the free throws through the mirror in the dining room.
There’s a mirror on the far wall of the that room, and if you stand at the right angle, you can see the television on the wall in the main room. So, for some reason – I’m not generally superstitious, but this felt right – I watched the rest of the free throws in the mirror. Not kidding, it really helped. It’s a far distance, and it wasn’t easy to see clearly, so all I could really do was watch the hoop and see if the ball went through. No time to be nervous about anything else – just watch the hoop.
I almost gave up on that when we went on that little one-out-of-two run. I thought maybe I wasn’t helping. Then I realized how ridiculous that sounded. Then I realized how ridiculous all of my hide-my-eyes antics and L-shaped pacing was. And THEN I calmed down.
Penn State hit those two late threes (because of course they did), but by then, for some reason, I had calmed down. I kind of came full circle. I watched all four of DJ’s final free throws from the couch, seated, 100% confident they were going in (and they did).
It’s this weird eye-of-the-hurricane moment that I get to with my nerves. Maybe I’ve just exhausted them. Maybe my brain has determined that the game is officially over (even though DJ had to hit all of those to keep the game completely out of reach). But all of the pacing and the heart-pounding and the mirror-watching stops, and I calmly enjoy watching Illini basketball.
Was it a great win? No. Our worst performance since the game at Wisconsin, truth be told. But we played like that against the worst Big Ten team in several years, and we squeaked out a five point win. Snowy day, only 7,000 fans showed up, due for a letdown game, got the win – I’ll take it.
Now I see the season this way: Odds of losing to Nebraska at home are the same as winning at Michigan or Ohio State. So I’ll put us down as 1-2 in those three. Which means the game at Iowa is the toss-up between a win to get us to 9-9, the six seed in the BTT (which earns another win over Nebraska), and a likely six seed in the dance, or a loss, putting us at 8-10, maybe the 8/9 game in the tournament against Purdue, a matchup with Indiana if we win, and maybe an 8-seed in the tourney. Big game, that Iowa game.
Surprise with a win at Ohio State or Michigan and make a little run in the BTT and we can start talking about a possible five or even a four seed. Lose to Nebraska on senior day and maybe we’re talking 10. But for tonight, we’ll tuck away the ugly win and never speak of this again. That’s our stinker for February, and it won’t happen again this season. It won’t happen, right? Man, what if we play like that against Nebraska?