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Fans, critics left wondering if John Groce is Illinois’ guy

Ohio coach John Groce center slaps hands with guard Ricardo Johns(20) final seconds third-round NCAA college basketball tournament game against

Ohio coach John Groce, center, slaps hands with guard Ricardo Johnson (20) in the final seconds of a third-round NCAA college basketball tournament game against South Florida on Sunday, March 18, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. Ohio won 62-56. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Updated: April 29, 2012 8:21AM



It didn’t materialize Tuesday, but sources said they still expect that, barring a shocking change, Ohio University coach John Groce — far from the people’s choice — will be hired as Illinois’ new men’s basketball coach.

An announcement could come Wednesday. But there was a slight chance athletic director Mike Thomas could go back to the drawing board after it wasn’t clear Tuesday why Groce had not been introduced after strong indications he and Thomas had reached an agreement.

A coaching source said this situation bears no similarity to last week, when Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart turned down Illinois.

‘‘I haven’t heard anything that tells me this is over,’’ the source said. ‘‘Shaka’s people said it was over, he’s not coming. I haven’t heard anything like that. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s an announcement [today]. But at this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if it falls apart, either.’’

Unlike the situations with Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens, in which coaches who weren’t all that interested in changing jobs ultimately issued statements that they were staying put, this ball seems to be in Illinois’ court.

An online report about a 3 p.m. news conference Tuesday evaporated quickly with this explanation from athletic department spokesman Kent Brown: Assembly Hall staff had been asked to prepare for a news conference, but no time or date had been set; they just wanted the Hall ready.

‘‘We never scheduled a press conference, so it couldn’t be pulled back,’’ Brown said, denying speculation that the delay was prompted by trustees still hoping for a minority hire.

Others sources said the failure to name Groce wasn’t about the minority situation.

So what’s the explanation? It could be that Thomas, who set himself up for some tough negotiating after dangling eight-year, $20  million offers at hot commodities Smart and Stevens, was still working out details with Groce.

Groce is unlikely to command that kind of a deal. On the other hand, Thomas doesn’t seem to be in a great place for bargaining. If Groce isn’t hired, where Thomas goes from there is a boggling question, especially in light of the public-relations fallout.

Groce, 40, who hasn’t been warmly embraced by Illini Nation or the Chicago high school basketball community, could want a reassuring contract before he tries to weather what could be a rocky start in Champaign.

This hiring process, one source said, ‘‘is showing that it really isn’t a top-15 or top-25 program. Those programs don’t hire a guy from the [Mid-American Conference].’’

Besides the minority controversy, many Illini fans and boosters are expressing outrage that Thomas couldn’t come up with a more proven coach to succeed Bruce Weber. Many prominent Chicago-area basketball leaders who had never heard of Groce, let alone met him, also are voicing serious concerns.

‘‘All I know is, it’s going to be an absolute firestorm for the guy when he’s hired,’’ a Chicago prep basketball analyst said. ‘‘It could get ugly for him with Chicago people. It’s going to be imperative that he’s careful in putting together a staff.’’-

Keeping assistant Jerrance Howard might ease that situation. But Howard, who quickly has built a strong recruiting reputation, will have top-notch offers that will make it a challenge to keep him.

Defenders of Groce point to his success in two of the last three NCAA tournaments and his background as an assistant of Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who has recruited the Chicago area well. They also point to Bobcats star D.J. Cooper, a South Sider. Critics see Ohio’s modest 34-30 record in the undistinguished MAC the last four years.



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