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Senior Day secondary to Illinois’ NCAA tournament hopes

Seniors BrandPaul (left) D.J. Richardswill be among five Illini playing their final game Assembly Hall Saturday against Nebraska. | AP

Seniors Brandon Paul (left) and D.J. Richardson will be among five Illini playing their final game at Assembly Hall on Saturday against Nebraska. | AP

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The facts: 4:15 p.m., BTN, 560-AM.

Updated: April 3, 2013 6:15AM

Ready or not, here it comes.

When Illinois takes on Nebraska on Saturday, it will be playing its final home game of coach John Groce’s inaugural season. And five seniors will be making their last appearance at Assembly Hall.

It’s a group that includes four-year anchors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, plus a pair of heart-and-soul contributors in transfer Sam McLaurin and diligent walk-on Kevin Berardini.

If that isn’t enough nostalgia, Illini Nation will be observing the 50th anniversary of Assembly Hall. The unique arena, beloved by many for its George Jetson-era vision of the future, opened its doors March 2, 1963.

And it was nearly a year ago, on March 9, 2012, that Bruce
Weber was fired by athletic director Mike Thomas and bid Champaign a tearful farewell.

In other words, there might be just a few ‘‘Days of Our Lives’’ emotions coursing through Paul, Richardson and Griffey, all of whom have experienced the full spectrum of college highs and lows — team, individual, single season, career, you name it.

‘‘It’ll be a special day for our five seniors,’’ Groce said Friday. ‘‘They’ve meant a lot to our program. The thing I’m proudest of is how resilient they’ve been. They’ve had a taste of what life’s about in their careers and have dealt with some ups and downs in a first-class manner.’’

This season alone, they’ve known the heights of a 12-0 start and a No. 10 ranking and the depths of a 2-7 start in Big Ten play. They have responded by winning five of their last six, a bounce-back that gives them hopes of making the most of the NCAA tournament bid that is in their sights.

‘‘We still have a ways to go,’’ Groce said. ‘‘I hope we can keep playing. I know the guys have a real desire to do that.’’

The first order of business is to tune out the pregame Senior Day festivities quickly and get down to business against the Cornhuskers. A victory probably would take the worry out of a Selection Sunday disaster for Illinois, not that anybody wants to stop there.

A loss, though, might open up the bubble question. And given that No. 1 Indiana and No. 4 Michigan already have lost this week, the Illini know better than to make assumptions the way fans and media do.

‘‘I think a lot of that is mental,’’ Groce said of the upsets. ‘‘We’re in the best league in the country. You have to be ready to go. You just never know.’’

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