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Illinois hires John Groce as next men’s basketball coach

NASHVILLE TN - MARCH 16:  Head coach John Groce Ohio Bobcats shouts his players against Michigan Wolverines during second

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 16: Head coach John Groce of the Ohio Bobcats shouts to his players against the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 16, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\141457223.jpg

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Updated: April 30, 2012 8:33AM

It’s always complicated at Illinois, Chapter 439: “News Is in the Eye of the Beholder.”

While most of Illini Nation was chewing orange-and-blue nails on Wednesday wondering what was going on with the search for a men’s basketball coach, athletic director Mike Thomas sunnily introduced Illinois’ new women’s coach, Matt Bollant.

The AD seemed blissfully unaware of fans’ angst over the men’s program.

“I might just string this out for 10 more days,” Thomas said.

That didn’t happen. According to a source, Illinois completed a deal with Ohio coach John Groce on Wednesday night. He will be officially introduced at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

What was the holdup? It’s difficult to say. One possibility is that the Groce hire was ready to go public Tuesday but was delayed to fill in some people who matter. Because Bollant was slotted for Wednesday, Thomas decided to proceed with that plan so the women’s program would not be overshadowed by the men’s hiring announcement.

Another possibility is that Groce wanted some time to pay his respects in Athens, Ohio. Supporters there are said to be trying to raise enough money to boost him to $500,000 a year. Groce earned about $355,000 this year, including bonuses.

There was no information on Groce’s salary at Illinois. But based on the way Thomas arrived at the approximately $1.8 million salary for new football coach Tim Beckman, look for Groce to land in the $1.5 million-to-$2 million range.

Now that Groce is on board, one big early question will be whether Illini assistant Jerrance Howard remains in Champaign. The Peoria native has become a respected recruiter who’s expected to be courted by top-echelon programs.

There’s a chance he’ll remain, but sources seemed to be leaning toward Howard accepting an attractive offer elsewhere.

Simeon coach Robert Smith could be a candidate for an assistant’s job, but one source wondered how that would play with coaches Smith has been competing against.

What Groce needs to do, the source said, is locate assistants familiar with Chicago’s prep landscape — coaches similar to assistants Paris Parham (Illinois State) and Dennis Gates (Florida State).

And that’s just one of many items on what has to be a long to-do list.

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