Season Three Premiers Thursday

Postseason play, or Season Three as John Groce calls it, kicks off Thursday in Chicago at the Big Ten Tournament.

CHAMPAIGN - The day after Illinois' regular-season ending loss at Ohio State, coach John Groce began the balancing act that comes with the 'Season Three' portion of the schedule.

Non-conference games months in the rear-view and the conference grind concluded, the postseason is the new here and now.

With everything that happened in the past performed to prepare for this weekend's Big Ten Tournament in Chicago and next week's NCAA Tournament abroad, Groce and his staff are now tasked with best readying Illini players for all the rigors that spring up in Season Three.

If he has his way, Groce says he'd prefer his players be "physically loose and mentally tight or focused. In a perfect world that would probably be the mindset I'd like for us to have."

Monday offered a good example as to why managing the mental and physical balance in March isn't easy. Groce debated whether to give his team the day completely off before settling on a light workout consisting of stretching and free throws.

"When the practice was over I had to lock the balls up just to get them out of there," he said. "They all want to be in there, they all want to practice, they're all in there, they're shooting around, got a lot of energy, and I'm like, 'get out of here.' I always think that's a good sign. Mindset is the most important thing."

The Illini play Minnesota at 11 a.m. Thursday in the opening game of the Big Ten Tournament. While the team lost it's final two games of the regular season, at Iowa and at Ohio State, Groce isn't concerned about momentum or a lack thereof. He said he expects his players to know those losses last week now mean as much as the win in February against Big Ten champion Indiana -- absolutely nothing.

"If they think a win a month ago or a loss four or five days ago is going to have anything to do with Thursday's game at 11 a.m. then we're not very mentally tough and we don't understand what this is about," he said.

Having a roster with four seniors that play a key role helps to clean the mental slate.

"They don't get attached," Groce said.

"Our guys know that they played good basketball at times and they know when they do they've got a chance to beat about anybody and when they don't we could get beat by about anybody. They know that. That's good. I think they've learned that. They've locked in, I'm sure, a little bit extra focus here in March and everyone's going to get everyone's best shot here in postseason tournaments."

Illinois has a few other advantages on it's side, too. Groce won the MAC Tournament twice while at Ohio, giving his postseason plan credibility since it's worked in the past. In two trips to the NCAA Tournament, the Bobcats upset Georgetown as a No. 14 seed in 2010 and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen last season.

Purposely avoiding specifics, guard Brandon Paul said Groce's approach in March is unique compared to what the team experienced in the past.

"It's a little different. The systems are different, the way they go about practices and timelines." Paul said. "Just the way we set up with our bodies."

The Illini must win four games in four days to claim the Big Ten crown. It's a tough order, sure, but Illinois pulled off a similar run in November to win the Maui Invitational.

While the competition faced wasn't on par with what's soon to be encountered, the Illini defeated USC, Chaminade and Butler in three days to make an early season statement.

More importantly, the quick turnarounds, odd game times and different venue combined to create a sort of trial run to get ready for March.

"I think one thing we did in Maui, we didn't worry about the opponents ahead of our first opponent," Paul said. "Our focus has to be on Minnesota, not who we're gonna play next or how many games we can play."

Groce said he changes the way he delivers his team the game plan during tournaments. He wants his players to know personnel and tendencies, but he doesn't want them to get overloaded with information.

"I think there is a delicate balance I think on those quick turnarounds," he said.

"You probably give them a little less and water it down because you don't have a lot of time."

Season Three, as the Illini have dubbed it, provides for some of the more exciting moments in sports. Those moments are made special because there's so much at stake for each team in every game. That's why Groce and his staff spend so much time and energy themselves making sure the players are at peak levels, physically and mentally.

The payoff, if Groce's plan works out, is especially important to Paul and his fellow seniors. It's not just wins and losses for those guys. Entering the last stage of their career, the seniors could largely be remembered most for what happens in the next few weeks.

"I'm not really sure what the fans are going to remember you as," Paul said. "I personally left a lot of different individual things. I want people to remember us as a team that went out fighting and we've got this game coming up. Hopefully we're going to make a big run in this tournament, as well in the NCAAs."

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