Groce is Out at Illinois. Who’s Next?

Photo: Michael Hickey, Getty Images

Well, it’s official. We interrupt this first half Wisconsin thrashing of Northwestern (don’t fall asleep on the Wildcats just yet, they’re streaky) to inform you that John Groce has been relieved of his duties as the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Illinois. Josh Whitman announced the decision today in a classy release that praised Groce’s character and effort while holding him accountable for the program’s lack of progress. This had to be hard on both men, who are friends, but it’s the right decision.

So what’s next? In the two major coaching hires we’ve seen with Whitman thus far, he moves quickly. Bill Cubit was fired on a Saturday, and Lovie was introduced on Monday. Kevin Hambly resigned as the volleyball coach and was replaced 10 days later by Chris Tamas. Look for that pattern to continue. The potential hiccup here is the NCAA Tournament. Odds are good the future Illini coach has a team in the dance. Recent rumors suggested current San Antonio Spurs exec and former NBA head coach Monty Williams may be the pick; if so, he’d be available to start immediately. A tweet by NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski just minutes after the Groce news broke seemed to put an end to those rumors, relaying that Williams was looking instead for an NBA gig.

Image result for kevin keatts

Kevin Keatts. Photo: AP

It’s hard to say who Whitman will target, but we’ll likely hear all kinds of names bandied about. One of the favorite past times of message board junkies is to monitor the FlightAware website tracking air travel in and out of Willard  There happens to be a flight leaving Champaign this evening for Wilmington, NC. UNC Wilmington has one of the hottest mid-major coaches on the market in Kevin Keatts, who has the Seahawks in the NCAA Tournament with a 29-5 record. Keatts is one of my favorites. He coached one of the premiere high school programs to sustained success at Hargrave Military Academy, then parlayed a three-year stint on the bench with Rick Pitino at Louisville into the head coaching job at UNCW. In his first season with the Seahawks, Keatts won CAA Coach of the year after leading the team to the conference championship and their first winning season in seven years. He’s since won the CAA regular season championship in each of his three seasons, won the CAA tournament twice, and is getting ready to coach UNCW in their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. He’s completely turned the program around in three years and comes with a ringing endorsement from Pitino, who’s mentored coaches like Billy Donovan, Tubby Smith, Mick Cronin, Herb Sendek, Reggie Theus, and that other Pitino who just turned Minnesota into a Tournament team one year after finishing last in the Big Ten, Richard Pitino. That’s a solid pedigree, and Keatts has won big at every stop.

Other names floating around include current Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew, who’s top assistant is Illini great Roger Powell. He just made the jump to Vandy from Valpo, though, and the timing may not be right. His brother, Scott, is the coach at Baylor who turned that program around but has always carried a whiff of nefarious recruiting activities. His name has been thrown out there, too, but Illinois needs and NCAA investigation like it needs another Unofficial. Likely pass for both parties. Archie Miller is another name that’s come up. He’s the head coach at Dayton and brother of Arizona head coach Sean Miller. Archie may be more interested in the opening at his alma mater, NC State, or he may be holding out for Ohio State, where he coached under Thad Matta. That’s just a few of the names out there. News-Gazette beat writer Scott Richey gives his list of possibilities here.

It’s tough to see a great guy like John Groce get fired, and I’m sure it was hard for Whitman to make that decision and have that conversation, but it clearly wasn’t working out for Groce at Illinois. I have confidence in Whitman’s ability to find a coach who is a good fit for the unique challenge of Illini basketball: high expectations, recent downturn, Chicago recruiting, higher admissions standards. But the Illini play in one of the best conferences in college athletics, have a newly renovated arena, and boast a nationwide fan base. This is a top job, Whitman just needs to find the right person to take all that potential and history to the next level.

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