All eyes on Groce
CHAMPAIGN — He's 40, originally from Muncie, Ind., and coached Ohio University to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament this season.
And unless something drastic changes in the next 48 hours, John Groce is the leading candidate to be the next basketball coach at Illinois.
Illinois and Groce, or at least third parties close to the Ohio coach, are in talks that would make him the coach of the Illini, multiple sources said late Sunday. There was room for movement, though it appeared as though Groce eventually would be the man.
No. 13 Ohio (29-8, 11-5 MAC) finally was knocked out of the NCAA tournament in a 73-65 overtime loss to No. 1 North Carolina on Friday. Groce did not respond to a voicemail or text messages to his cellphone Sunday.
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said late Sunday that a decision on the next coach had not been made.
Groce is part of the successful Butler-Xavier-Ohio State coaching tree. He played for the legendary Paul Patterson at Taylor University in Indiana and worked under Herb Sendek (at North Carolina State) and Thad Matta (Butler, Xavier and Ohio State).
Groce gained a reputation in the Midwest as a standout recruiter. He helped lure Mike Conley and Greg Oden to Ohio State, for example. In four seasons as the head coach at Ohio University, his records are 85-56 overall and 34-30 in the MAC. Most notably, he directed the Bobcats to NCAA tournament upsets of Georgetown, Michigan and South Florida.
Illinois predictably made a run at Butler coach Brad Stevens, as well. Thomas, who attended an Illini softball game and tennis match Sunday, flew to the Indianapolis area at some point during the weekend, according to a source.
It was unclear if the AD met face-to-face with Stevens. There was never an in-person meeting with VCU coach Shaka Smart, who was speculated as the first target of the Illinois search.
Regardless, Stevens always was a serious long shot. As Internet rumors surfaced that he was allegedly in play, multiple sources who know Stevens well said they would be "shocked" and "stunned" if Stevens left Butler for Illinois. The fit wasn't right, sources said.
Butler later released a statement Sunday that announced Stevens isn't entertaining offers from other schools.