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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?

*begins pacing*

Illinigrad February 22nd, 2013

What a GREAT post Robert. There are many of us that have “issues” when watching the Illini play because, as you say, we want the team to win so badly. I remember the OSU fan from the TV broadcast. He stands out now when I watch the replay. I hope your family has a second TV in case someone needs a break! BTW, two of my favorite FB replays of all time is the win over OSU (probably Juice’s best game as an Illini) and Vanderbilt’s win over TN this past season. In BB it is the win over AZ — surprise, surprise. With this win over PSU I feel like Illinois has escaped from some form of Hell because we are headed for the NCAA tournament (finally). I just hope KSU gets beat and we don’t have to play them. Even the idea of losing to Weber in the NCAA after his imploding our BB program is just too much even to contemplate.

Illinigrad February 22nd, 2013

Correction: …after he imploded our BB program…

Lou-a-villini February 22nd, 2013

Sounds like a great story in the future when you sell your house…. Buyer: “There seems to be some unsual wear in the carpet.” Agent: “Yes, he was an Illinois fan.”

KB09 February 22nd, 2013

“I am a Bruce Weber-level ninny when it comes to my nerves and Illini sports”

This describes Illini Nation to a T. Ever notice when the shot clock gets under ten seconds Assembly Hall becomes a psych ward? Could this be because we had a coach for 9 years that called timeout with 5 seconds left on the shot clock because he didn’t trust his guys to make a play?

How long until we are “John Groce-level enthusiasts”? TNT guys. TNT.

SouthernIllini February 22nd, 2013

Robert, seriously, you’re a pretty fantastic writer, my friend. I don’t know if you’re a Cardinals fan or not, but there’s a guy over at a SB nation blog called Viva El Birdos that has a similarly entertaining style. His name is Dan Moore. I can read you guys every day.

Thanks for making me feel much less eccentric! I actually DVR the games, change the channel, and watch another show for about 20 minutes so I can build up some “padding”. Then I fast forward through the parts I’m too nervous to watch. If the score comes out like the play went well, then I rewind it to watch it again. Then again, if the score comes out wrong, I still rewind it to watch it so I can see where they screwed up.

thegoah February 22nd, 2013

I use the dvr, but I watch every second. Except sometmes I skip free throws. I don’t recall whether I mentioned this already, but I watched the final 20 seconds of the Indiana game in slow motion. Interesting way to watch a game like that. It played so slowly that there was about a 3 second delay between Tyler’s layup hitting the net and the crowd getting out of its seats. That was a surreal 3 seconds. “Wait. That means we win, right? Did they blow a whistle? Did that count? Holy crap!”

There was also a pretty uncomfortable delay between me seeing TG break free and seeing that BP saw him threw him the ball.

Speaking of BP, we need to acknowledge his defense last night. His offense was up and down, but he made some great defensive plays.

Lou-a-villini February 22nd, 2013

p.s. I was humming Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” this morning.

SouthernIllini February 22nd, 2013

I agree completely Goah. I never thought this team could be pretty good without BP being a consistent offensive superstar, but Richardson has bloomed into everything we hoped. All we need from BP is to play within himself and use his freakish athleticism to play consistent defense.

illiniranger February 22nd, 2013

picturing a grown (and bearded man) standing behind the curtains and watching a team shoot FTs with only one eye is hilarious. sir, your wife is a saint.

GrogsBBQPepperoni February 22nd, 2013

“Amen” from the early 90s.
I could go for a haystack right now…

Lou-a-villini February 22nd, 2013

“Please lose to Michigan. Please lose to Michigan. Please lose to Michigan.”

(Hey, it’s been working so far…..)

CTillini February 22nd, 2013

Robert, I with you big fella. Was nauseous most of the second half and dry-heaved when JoeBert’s 3-ball rimmed out just before the under 12 minute tv timeout. At least I think it was JoeBert, my eyes were watering.

But F it…we’re back to .500 in the conference and talking (legitimately) about NCAA seeds. Strap in and enjoy it. Might be a good ride.

mdonsbach February 22nd, 2013

Let’s see here. I usually watch the games with my TV turned up to 30, turn my stereo on, and kick my wife to the opposite side of the house. The first 3 game losing streak I turned off the stereo. The second 3 game losing streak I was at a loss so i let my wife silently sit on the couch and play on her Iphone. That was the IU game. It is now MANDATED that she sit on the couch during every game for good luck. Of course I probably kick her out for the scUM game but it’s worked so far!

Illinigrad February 22nd, 2013

To echo some of the thoughts above, Robert you are one of the best blog writers on the planet. You should be writing for the NYT. But, what makes it soooo special is your insights into Illini sports especially the collective neurosis of serious Illini fans