- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Sources say Illinois has finally landed its new coach in John Groce after what appeared to be another bumpy journey for Illini athletic director Mike Thomas.
From the outside looking in, the Illini’s search for Bruce Weber’s replacement didn’t appear to go according to plan -- much like Illinois’ football search.
VCU’s Shaka Smart was thought of as the holy grail, but he turned down the Illini’s offer and released a public statement that he was remaining at VCU on March 21.
Illinois next went after Butler’s Brad Stevens, another big fish, and also failed to reel him in. Stevens released a similar public statement that he was staying at Butler on Sunday.
Groce may not be Illinois’ No. 1 choice -- a lot like football coach Tim Beckman didn’t seem to be -- but it doesn’t mean he can’t succeed in Champaign.
Groce’s MAC record (34-30) isn’t impressive, but his teams have come through when it has mattered most. The Bobcats won the MAC tournament as a No. 9 seed in 2010 and went onto upset Georgetown in the NCAA tournament. This season, they upset Akron to win another MAC tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 by knocking off higher seeds Michigan and South Florida and only lost top top-seeded North Carolina in overtime.
Groce’s recruiting success at Ohio State is what should give Illinois’ fans hope. He landed Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. from Indiana. If he can duplicate that success in Chicago, the Illini should be in great shape. One of the biggest knocks on Weber was he was unable to lure the state’s top recruits.
Groce plays an up-tempo style of offense that allows his players freedom, but he also emphasizes an aggressive man-to-man defense. Ohio ranked third in scoring offense and third in scoring defense in the MAC this season. His team also shot a MAC-high 809 3-pointers, which was 190 more than the next team, and led the conference with 9.4 steals a game this season.
John Groce wasn't Illinois' first choice -- and that really doesn't matter.