- Associated Press - Thursday, April 6, 2017

AKRON, Ohio (AP) - John Groce has built from the middle and bottom. At Akron, he’s starting near the top.

“I like the challenges,” he said.

After previous stops at Illinois and Ohio, Groce was introduced Thursday as the new coach at Akron, where he’ll inherit a program that flourished over the past decade under Keith Dambrot.

The Zips became one of the nation’s best mid-majors and were a standard of excellence in the Mid-American Conference under Dambrot, who stunned the school by accepting the job at Duquesne following this season.

Groce’s challenge will be sustaining what was started under Dambrot, who won at least 21 games in each of the past 12 seasons, as well as getting the Zips back into the NCAA Tournament.

“We want to build on that great recent success. The previous coaches and players have done such a great job of laying that foundation,” Groce said at a news conference on Akron’s campus.

The 45-year-old Groce was fired last month at Illinois, where he went 95-75. He made the NCAA field in his first season with the Fighting Illini, but they never had a winning Big 10 conference record. Groce guided Ohio to a pair of MAC titles and two NCAA appearances, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2012.

While he was at Ohio, Groce developed a rivalry with Akron. He’s now on the other side of the fence.

“I like to compete,” he said. “Obviously I know the background of the league, not only from the last time I was in it, but even before that. I’m fully aware that there are teams getting better. We love that challenge. I’m more worried about what Akron is doing.”

Akron made three NCAA trips under Dambrot, but the school went 0-3 and was overlooked other years for at-large bids despite strong resumes.

Groce’s 4-3 record in NCAA games is only part of what made him appealing to Akron.

“We wanted to get someone who had that experience (at Division I), who had the appetite for success and excellence, a proven track record in the regular season, accomplishments in the postseason, as well,” school president Matthew Wilson said. “We were looking for someone who would help foster academic success, because that’s what we are as part of the University of Akron. We’re about students and that includes our student-athletes and the academic success we need to bring as well.”

The Zips are counting on some of Groce’s Ohio connections to help in recruiting. He was on Thad Matta’s staff at Ohio State from 2005-08, and before that with the Buckeyes coach for three years at Xavier and one at Butler.

Groce said it’s not productive to judge his accomplishments at Ohio and compare to what he did at Illinois.

“I think you get in trouble playing the comparison game,” said Groce, who met with his new players for the first time on Wednesday. “The most important thing for me is the relationships with players, coaches, staff, support staff, how they all connect. How they all pull in the same direction, and the second most important thing to be is honoring the process. I think I’ve always done that.

“The score takes care of itself if you do things the right way every day, if we get better every day.”

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