The University of Illinois’ new athletic director issued a vote of confidence in men’s basketball coach John Groce on Saturday, praising his leadership and making clear he will continue in the position.
Groce has been under pressure from fans who are unhappy the team will miss the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season – Illinois’ biggest NCAA drought since 1978-80. Illinois (13-17, 5-12 Big Ten) is also facing its first losing season since the 2007-08 team went 16-19.
“I think it’s important today that folks understand that John Groce is going to continue to be our basketball coach,” Athletic Director Josh Whitman said on WDWS-AM radio. “He’s a first-class individual and an excellent leader. He’s a student of basketball and leadership and I feel really comfortable with the leadership he’s given our guys.”
Groce said he appreciated Whitman’s support.
“It means a lot. I’ve had a few face-to-face interactions with him and some over the phone as well,” Groce said, according to the (Decatur) Herald & Review. “We'll certainly have more. But he has a great understanding of where we started what we’ve been through, where we’re going, how we’re going to do it and what we’re about.”
Whitman’s remarks came shortly before he fired football coach Bill Cubit, who was interim coach last season and was made the permanent replacement for former coach Tim Beckman in November, receiving a two-year contract.
The basketball team made the NCAA Tournament in 2013, Groce’s first season, but has done no better than the National Invitation Tournament since.
The Illini have dealt with a string of injuries this season. Starting point guard Tracy Abrams missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon, and forward Leron Black and center Mike Thorne Jr., both starters, have missed most of the season.
Groce’s teams have also struggled with off-court problems, too.
Black has pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault after allegedly threatening a bar bouncer with a knife last month. Darius Paul was kicked off the team last summer after he was arrested in France on a team trip. And two players were suspended for multiple games last season for unspecified team-rules violations.
Groce was hired in 2012 after taking Ohio on an NCAA Tournament run. Illinois’ final regular-season game is Sunday at Penn State.
Whitman was hired last month to replace the man who brought Groce aboard, Mike Thomas; Thomas was fired in November. Saturday was Whitman’s first official day at Illinois after finishing up his work as the athletic director at Washington University in St. Louis.