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Illinois—Finally—Gets Its Man

By Chuck Sudo in News on Mar 29, 2012 3:40PM

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas must be breathing a sigh of relief, now that his search for a replacement for Bruce Weber as men's basketball coach is over.

The university will hold a press conference later today to formally announce the hiring of Ohio's John Groce as the new coach of the Illini. In four years at Ohio, Groce has taken the Bobcats from Mid-Atlantic Conference cellar dwellers to two NCAA appearances and two MAC tournament championships.

The search for a new coach has resulted in major hand-wringing among Illini Nation, sportswriters and Chicago high school and AAU coaches who somehow feel as though the new hire should kneel before them: a blatant power play that puts some Illinois politicians to shame. Weber tried to appease those coaches in his final years at Urbana-Champaign and the in-state blue chippers he recruited ultimately didn't fit in with the system he wanted to run. Those same coaches are expressing disappointment Thomas didn't hire a coach with ties to the Chicago area or name recognition. But Groce is a proven recruiter. During his years as an assistant under Ohio State's Thad Matta, Groce was instrumental in bringing in Greg Oden and Mike Conley, the foundation of the Buckeye's 2007 Final Four run

Groce may not have been Thomas' first choice to run the program, but The Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy writes he may be the right fit for the program.

"Groce, 40, lacks a Final Four on his resume as the others do, but neither of them served as lead recruiter in the successful pursuit of prospects as elite as Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Deshaun Thomas, who helped Ohio State to two Final Fours and four Big Ten titles in the past six years.

"Groce also led Ohio to two NCAA appearances in the past three seasons and defeated major-conference powers to advance in both. Playing as a No. 14 seed, the Bobcats defeated No. 3-seeded Georgetown in their 2010 tournament opener. As a No. 13 seed this season, Groce led Ohio to a victory over Big Ten co-champion Michigan, then a third-round win over South Florida to reach the Sweet 16. And then No. 1 seeded North Carolina needed overtime to advance past Ohio in the regional semifinals.

"Groce has had some recruiting success in Illinois, too. Although current Charlotte coach Alan Major was the point man in pursuit of eventual Oscar Robertson Trophy winner Evan Turner out of Westchester St. Joseph, Groce made such a positive impression that Turner tweeted support this week for Groce's Illinois candidacy.

"Groce found Chicago native D.J. Cooper of Seton Academy when others missed his talent. Cooper became the top player on the Bobcats’ two NCAA Tournament teams."

DeCourcy, in short, vocalizes what we and others believe: it isn't where Groce recruits, but who he recruits.