CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach John Groce breaks the season up into three segments.
Season 1 was the nonconference schedule. Season 2 was the Big Ten slate.
Season 3 starts at 11 a.m. Thursday when the eighth-seeded Illini open the Big Ten tournament against No. 9 seed Minnesota (20-11, 8-10) in Chicago.
With the third portion of the season on the brink, the ever-energetic first-year Illinois coach hasn’t had much of an opportunity to fully assess his team’s performance during the conference season that ended with Sunday’s 68-55 loss at No. 14 Ohio State. It wore him out.
“I was so exhausted when I got home,” Groce said Monday. “Eighteen games, I just wanted to take a deep breath and come in this morning and get revved up.”
After some thought, Groce spoke of the fortitude the Illini (21-11, 8-10) showed after starting the Big Ten season 2-7 and bouncing back to win 6 of 9. The three losses all came on the road against teams (Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State) that are a combined 51-5 at home with three of those losses coming to Big Ten champion Indiana.
“I’m excited about Season 3 starting and today we’ll start the preparation for that,” Groce said. “The things that stand out the most for sure with Season 2 are the resiliency and toughness our guys showed to battle back the second half of the Big Ten season. We played some good basketball.”