Fighting Illini AD gives vote of confidence to John Groce

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- New Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman issued a vote of confidence for men's basketball coach John Groce on Saturday, praising his leadership and making clear he will continue in the position.

Groce has been under pressure from fans who are unhappy the team will miss the NCAA tournament for a third straight season -- Illinois' biggest NCAA drought since 1978-80. Illinois (13-17, 5-12 Big Ten) is also facing its first losing season since the 2007-08 team went 16-19.

"I think it's important today that folks understand that John Groce is going to continue to be our basketball coach," Whitman told WDWS-AM radio in his first day on the job. "He's a first-class individual and an excellent leader. He's a student of basketball and leadership and I feel really comfortable with the leadership he's given our guys."

The team made the NCAA tournament in 2013, Groce's first season, but has done no better than the National Invitation Tournament since.

The Illini have dealt with a string of injuries this season. Starting point guard Tracy Abrams missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon, and forward Leron Black and center Mike Thorne Jr., both starters, have missed most of the season.

Groce's teams have also struggled with off-court problems, too.

Black has pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault after allegedly threatening a bar bouncer with a knife last month. Darius Paul was kicked off the team last summer after he was arrested in France on a team trip. And two players were suspended for multiple games last season for unspecified team-rules violations.

Groce was hired in 2012 after taking Ohio on an NCAA tournament run. Illinois' final regular-season game is Sunday at Penn State.

Whitman was hired last month to replace Mike Thomas, who was fired in November.

Saturday was Whitman's first official day at Illinois after finishing up his work as the athletic director at Washington University in St. Louis.