It's amazing what four days away will do for your emotions. As I've mentioned several times, I flew to Boston to attend my cousin's memorial service this weekend, and with lots of family flying in, I unplugged from all things Illini. Save for 45 minutes I had Sunday morning to write about Bruce Weber (?), I was more or less completely unplugged from Illini sports.
Which is an odd scenario for me. There was an open scrimmage for football, and this was the first open scrimmage I've missed, spring or fall, in maybe eight years. There was a make-or-break basketball game, and this is maybe the first make-or-break game I've missed in maybe 15 years.
Given the choice again, of course, I'd choose the memorial service. I think I said this in the other post, but I feel like the rest of my life will be different now, mostly because I now realize that life is about having a service like that at the end. My cousin Tim died in a car crash on a trip to deliver eye glasses (and teach about eye disease) in remote areas of India. And at his service, he was remembered for decades of work like that - his friends, his family, the faculty he worked with, and his students all remembering how much he gave. I need to give more. I will.
In doing that - a complete unplug for something more important - I return to Illini football and basketball a little less anxious. It's not that I'm not distraught about losing to the worst team in the league with the NCAA Tournament right there for the taking, or that it doesn't bother me to miss an open football scrimmage. I'm saying that it's strange to return to a routine after only four days away and feel like the current is moving too quickly for me to jump back in.
I suppose this is true of anything. I'll take a vacation and that project I've been working on for months at work seems foreign when I return. It feels like all the team members have advanced to this new way of looking at it and I need a refresher on that advancement before I'll feel caught up. Miss a little, miss a lot.
The biggest thing I think I missed over the last four days was the fan anger switch being flipped back on. Not that fans weren't angry before - it's just that I left town in the glow of four wins in a row and the Michigan State senior night fun, and I returned with everything back to post-Penn State. Not a criticism - John Groce is now 37-53 in the Big Ten and should coach the Big Ten Tournament with those numbers taped to his back - it's just that I wasn't prepared for the return to mid-February.
A few people had retweeted (or maybe liked) a tweet someone sent to Josh Whitman (@IlliniAD) which pushed it to my timeline, and for the first time this winter, I did a Twitter search to see how often this happens. The answer: quite often. Lots of people appear to be tweeting him all kinds of statistics of where our program stands at the moment. Even some Illini writers seem to have jumped in on the fun (is it?). Martin Luther's 95 theses have advanced all the way to 140 characters, apparently.
Which doesn't really surprise me, I guess. My point is that because I didn't watch the Rutgers game, I was still post-MSU "is it still possible for Malcolm, Tracy, and Mav to dance?", thinking through scenarios where we somehow knock off Michigan and Purdue and get ourselves back on the right side of the bubble. But had I watched (I guess it was bad; well, it had to be bad if we lost to Rutgers), I would have advanced myself to "the tournament is gone, so the coach is certainly gone". John Groce had one final chance to state his case and he lost to Rutgers on the road. (And, really, it would be silly to even evaluate Groce just based on the Rutgers game so going game-by-game with coach opinions is rather fruitless.)
So I somewhat feel like I need to adjust my anticipation for the Big Ten Tournament. I haven't looked at any brackets yet (and I'm typing this on an airplane with no wifi so I couldn't even research it if I wanted to), but I think I'm realizing that my "if we can just beat Michigan and have a few bubble things go our way…" feelings are off base. I probably need to let it go. Season over. Good feels after Michigan State completely gone.
I should also note that a four day vacation from all things Illini fandom means that the re-entry will come with some adjustments to its importance. I'm not making the "there's more to life than sports, everyone" point - my cousin's lifelong journey with baseball and his group of friends who made a yearly pilgrimage to Cooperstown for the last 29 years causes me to return from his memorial service with even more fandom vigor - but when you completely unplug for four days, the urgency of fandom is a bit startling. I spend my days in various states of "if this doesn't happen, my life is OVER" (remember my football recruiting freak-out last summer?), so to unplug for four days reveals that maybe I sometimes get a little too close.
An example: I think the softball team is going to be pretty good this year. I've written about Nicole Evans before, and I'm hoping that they make a legitimate push for a Big Ten title so I can maybe write about her senior year and Nicole leading her team deeper into the postseason than Illinois has ever done before. So for the first few weeks of the season, I found myself following every game. I've never done this in the past with softball, but I found myself focusing on inning-by-inning tweets (for February softball games) hoping that no early-season losses were hurting our chances at a surprising softball season.
After taking four days off, that seems a little silly. It's a long season, and I don't really know anything about softball, so my focus on, say, doubleheader results seems a bit off. I can't look it up right now but it seems as though there was a doubleheader last week where they lost 5-4 and then won 12-0. And I honestly found myself frustrated with "outscore the opponent 16-5 but split the doubleheader" (for a sport I haven't even followed much until now). I'm desperate for some Illini good news, and really frustrated at the golf results last week, and softball really should have won both of those games in the doubleheader, and… the reaction you're having to these words is the reaction I'm having to taking four days off and then giving things a fresh look.
That's just an example. And I think it translates to the Big Two sports. I get a little too close sometimes and can't see the big picture. Football is a five year rebuild - even recruiting will take five years to get it to where we want it to be - so I need to take deep breaths and stay focused on the 2020's. For all intents and purposes, the basketball season ended on Saturday in New Jersey and I need to stop screaming for the machines to be turned back on. Deep breaths, time to think about the long term.
I checked the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website before I got on the plane and the lead sports stories were all about "who will Mizzou land as their next basketball coach". That snapped my head around real quick. They're already out there talking to coaches and agents (just like NC State has been doing for weeks), so the arms race is fully underway. And there I was, focused on the Tournament and our slim chances of somehow getting there. There's a more important thing to be worrying about - what are we doing with John Groce? If 8-10 in the Big Ten saves his job, what does that say about where we are as a program? If we do make a change, what if NC State and Missouri out-spend us and get better coaches?
OK, I'm back to worried again.