John Groce keeps his mind on the Big Ten Tournament, not his future at Illinois

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CHAMPAIGN, IL - FEBRUARY 21: Head coach John Groce of the Illinois Fighting Illini is seen during the game against the Northwestern Wildcats at State Farm Center on February 21, 2017 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

CHAMPAIGN – Here’s some simple advice to avoiding speculation in this era of sports media: Don’t watch anything.

John Groce found that out a few weeks ago.

After finishing his team’s preparation for an upcoming game, the Illinois head coach decided to turn on the television to watch his half-brother Travis Steele’s Xavier team in action.

“All I really wanted to do was to watch my brother’s team play,” said Groce, but the timing for an escape wasn’t ideal.

That was about the time the Illini were starting to creep back into the NCAA Tournament with some wins late in the Big Ten season. Even so, Groce was hoping to clear his head of the drama over the course of a few hours.

No such luck.

“That’s all their talking about throughout the telecast,” said Groce of speculation of what team’s might make the NCAA Tournament. “Finally, I had to turn it off.”

It’s not a bad strategy for the coach who is on the bubble as much as his team is this week as the Big Ten Tournament begins. After four-straight wins to put themselves back in the NCAA Tournament conversation, Illinois had a dud in their regular season finale at last place Rutgers as they blew a ten-point lead in a three-point loss to the Scarlet Knights.

That leaves the Illini at 18-13 on the regular season with an 8-10 Big Ten record. ESPN still has Illinois in the hunt as the conference tourney begins, with Joe Lunardi marking the team as one of the “Last Four Out” in his bracket.

Not that Groce is paying attention to that or even his tenuous job status with the Fighting Illini. Whenever the Illinois season comes to an end so does the school’s contractual obligation with the coach who so far has reached the NCAA Tournament in just one of his four seasons.

A second appearance won’t happen for sure if the 9th-seeded Illini don’t beat 8th-seeded Michigan in their Big Ten Tournament opener at the Verizon Center on Thursday. Most likely they would have to knock off top-seed Purdue and more to crack the field of 68 teams in the tournament.

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman took decisive action when taking the job in Champaign last winter when he fired recently signed Bill Cubit in favor of Lovie Smith after years of sub-par performances. Many believe that Whitman would do the same with the program that hasn’t been much of a factor in the national conversation since their Final Four appearance in 2005.

As with his team’s tournament prospects, Groce is ignoring the speculation while praising his boss who will soon decide his fate.

“I’m going one day at a time, but he’s been fantastic,” said Groce when asked about his communication with Whitman about the future. “I couldn’t ask for more support, he’s been great and we talk a lot, talk about our team, recruiting or whatever it might be. So for me, right now my focus is on one day at a time and I think he knows that.

“He senses that. He’s around us enough, he hears what I’m saying to the team, to our staff and he respects that’s how we’ve left it.”

Don’t expect that to be the case for long, even if Groce continues to keep the distractions at an arm’s length.