Illinois fires men's basketball coach John Groce

Illinois fires men's basketball coach John Groce

The John Groce era is over at Illinois.

Many felt this was a pivotal season for Groce, who was under pressure and scrutiny when the 2016-17 season dawned. Well, on Saturday afternoon, A.D. Josh Whitman made it official, firing the coach he inherited.

“I want to thank John Groce and his staff for their tireless efforts over these past five years,” Whitman said in a release. “In many ways, John is a model leader. He exudes optimism and tackles every day with unbelievable energy. He has the highest integrity.”

Bottom line: Groce, who compiled a 95-75 record overall, including 37-53 in Big Ten play, probably needed to earn an NCAA bid in his fifth season to keep his job. Alas, that didn’t happen with Illinois needing to make a run in the Big Ten tourney but instead getting knocked out in its first game by Michigan.

“Under his leadership, regrettably, we were not able to sustain the level of competitive excellence that we expect at the University of Illinois. But that should do nothing to detract from the many wonderful things John has done on behalf of Illinois Basketball during his tenure.”

Groce had two years remaining on his contract and will receive the balance of payment due, approximately $1.7. million. As for the immediate future, assistant coach Jamall Walker has been elevated to interim head coach.

What’s next, though?

Whitman was bold when he made a football coaching change shortly after landing the A.D. job last winter, canning Bill Cubit just moments into his new gig and quickly tabbing former NFL coach Lovie Smith. It was an emphatic move that excited the fan base.

Will Whitman make another splashy hire? That may be what’s needed to generate interest in a middling basketball program that can’t gain traction. But competition for big-name coaches is fierce. And some of those may be leery of taking the Illinois job.

Names that have been speculated are Xavier’s Chris Mack, Middle Tennessee’s Kermit Davis, Dayton’s Archie Miller, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak, UNC Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts, Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, SMU’s Tim Jankovich and Cal’s Cuonzo Martin, among others.

Whomever Illinois lands will inherit a solid program. The basketball venue has undergone a recent renovation. And Illinois traditionally is known as a basketball school, making the Final Four as recently as 2005. Plus, the recruiting base is solid, too.

The roster will take some big hits, however. The best player in wing Malcolm Hill is gone along with guard Tracy Abrams and big man Maverick Morgan. But talent is back in the form of forwards Michael Finke, Leron Black, Kipper Nichols and exciting freshman point man Te’Jon Lucas along with guard Jalen Coleman-Lands.

And Groce had the makings of one of the top recruiting classes in the Big Ten led by 6-10 Jeremiah Tilmon, a five-star recruit. The class also includes four-stars in guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams, along with three-star guard Javon Pickett. Can the new coach hold that class together?

Groce arrived in Champaign amid great expectations after Bruce Weber was let go. Groce forged an 85-56 mark at Ohio University in four seasons, playing in two NCAA tourneys. His Bobcats reached their apex in his final season in 2011-12, going 29-8 and reaching the Sweet 16. But Groce couldn’t duplicate that success at Illinois. Groce failed to land an NCAA bid each of the last four years. The program hasn’t gone that long without a Big Dance appearance since missing the event from 1964-1980.

The Fighting Illini reached the NCAA tourney Groce’s first season during a 23-13 campaign. But it was downhill from there. NIT bids followed each of the next two years. Then, Illinois finished with a losing mark in 2015-16 (15-19) before going 18-13 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten this season. Groce’s best finish in the Big Ten was a pair of ties for seventh place in 2013 and 2015. He leaves campus with a 95-74 overall record and a 37-53 Big Ten mark.

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Email Tom Dienhart using the form below.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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