CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) The University of Illinois' new athletic director issued a vote of confidence in men's basketball coach John Groce on Saturday, praising his leadership and making clear he will keep his job.
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'm very confident in John's leadership of our basketball program,'' Whitman said at a news conference to discuss his decision earlier Saturday to fire football coach Bill Cubit. ''I feel really good about the leadership that he's giving to our young men.''
But amid fan speculation about Groce's job security, Whitman would not say whether the fourth-year coach has his backing beyond next season.
''I understand there's a lot of speculation,'' the AD said on what was his first official day on the job. ''To put a length on that would be premature.''
Groce said he appreciated Whitman's support.
''It means a lot. I've had a few face-to-face interactions with him and some over the phone as well,'' Groce said, according to the (Decatur) Herald & Review. ''We'll certainly have more. But he has a great understanding of where we started what we've been through, where we're going, how we're going to do it and what we're about.''
The basketball 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 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.
''I talked at length with John about that,'' Whitman said, adding that he sees such problems as opportunities to help the school's athletes become better people. ''He shares that philosophy. I also believe in accountability. That's part of the lessons.''
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 the man who brought Groce aboard, Mike Thomas; Thomas 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.