Illinois Basketball: Possible Targets for Next Head Coach

SchmolikCorrespondent IIFebruary 25, 2012

Illinois Basketball: Possible Targets for Next Head Coach

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    Hello, Illini fans!

    Yes, I am an Illinois fan. I still admit it, even though it's hard to after this season.

    Illinois' men's basketball team has hit rock bottom this year, or at least, close to it. They stand at 5-10 in the Big Ten and are currently on a five-game losing streak. Three of their losses were to Northwestern (at home), Penn State, and newcomer Nebraska (by 20 points) this season.

    The way that Illinois has been playing since Bruce Weber spoke out to the media after the Purdue loss, the only remaining game they're probably going to win will be at home against suddenly-red-hot Iowa.  Even at home they will be hard-pressed to beat Michigan, and have little chance going to Madison to beat a Wisconsin team that already won in Champaign this season.

    It appears the Bruce Weber era will end after this season, which is a far cry from the 2005 season's run to the national championship game. In Weber's last five seasons he will have made the NCAA Tournament just two times and won just one game. This will be Illinois' second season under Weber that they will finish with a losing Big Ten record. Weber did a great job with Bill Self's recruits but has shown little to nothing with his own recruits.

    The question is who should be targeted by athletic director Mike Thomas to be the next basketball coach of the Fighting Illini? Ideally the candidate should have a proven track record, a bright future, and Midwestern ties. We want a head coach that considers Illinois a destination job, not a stepping stone to a bigger job.

    While the school will be interviewing candidates, the candidates will also be interviewing Illinois. We have to make these candidates believe that Illinois is a better (both financially and in terms of being able to win) situation than their current job.

    Here are a some people who I feel Illinois should target:

1. Brad Stevens, Butler

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    Brad Stevens' Butler profile.

    I will not consider Illinois' head coach search to be complete unless Stevens' phone rings. He should far and away be the first number called.

    Anyone who follows men's basketball shouldn't have to wonder why.

    In addition to the last two NCAA championship game appearances, Butler has made four consecutive NCAA Tournaments under Stevens. Stevens is very young and will instantly bring energy and excitement to the Illini team.

    Stevens clearly is a Midwestern guy. He graduated from DePauw University in western Indiana and has spent over a decade with the Butler basketball program. Illinois' campus is a short drive away from Indianapolis, so it wouldn't be a far move for Stevens.

    To me, the timing is as good as it can be to nab Stevens.

    Butler is suffering a down year, sitting at 18-13. They most likely will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Stevens' coaching career unless they win the Horizon League Tournament.

    It would have been hard to pry Stevens from Butler the last two seasons after he made the championship game.

    Stevens has to know that Butler each year has little margin of error. They have to either win the conference championship or have a terrific regular season to get an at-large bid. At Illinois, a winning record in the Big Ten should get the Illini into the NCAA.

    In addition, Butler has to compete for Indiana recruits with three other major teams in state (Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame). Illinois is far and away the No. 1 school in the state of Illinois and the Chicago area is one of the best recruiting pools in the country.

    Illinois has a far bigger upside, and, with the right head coach, can be a more successful program in the long run than Butler.

    With Brad Stevens' Indiana roots, the other big Indiana programs would be logical destinations for him. But Purdue and Notre Dame have well-established coaches who don't appear to be going anywhere.

    Indiana has had a losing record the last three years, and there was a possibility that the Hoosiers' job (a more attractive job to Stevens) would be available. But Tom Crean seems to have righted the ship as Indiana has beaten Ohio State and Kentucky (the only team to date that has done so) this season.

    This is clearly the year for Illinois to make a run at Stevens. What if next year Butler goes back to being Butler? He would be less likely to want to leave.

    I think one reason why Mark Few never left Gonzaga is he never missed the NCAA Tournament there. What if this year is a fluke for Indiana and they go back to their losing ways and the Indiana job opens up? Stevens could go there.

    I will only accept two scenarios. Either Brad Stevens is coaching in Champaign next season, or I want to hear Stevens personally reject the job and stay at Butler (I can't think of a more attractive head coach opening this off season).

    As soon as Illinois' and Butler's season is over, I expect Mike Thomas to drive to I-74 and offer Stevens the job.

    I am not sure Stevens will accept, especially if Butler makes the NCAA Tournament this year. He has a long-term contract, and he is clearly the man at Butler. He could see the Illinois fans turning on Weber and not want to deal with the pressure.

    But Illinois has to at least make a run at Stevens.

    So if Stevens says no (he wouldn't the first and won't be the last mid-major coach to reject a power conference head coaching job), who would be my next choice?

2. Scott Drew, Baylor

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    Scott Drew's Profile

    Drew would also be a fabulous choice as the next coach of the Illini.

    Scott Drew came to a perennially bad Baylor basketball program that also was recovering from a scandal in 2003. He has led them to two NCAA appearances (2008 and 2010) and the Elite Eight in 2010 where they lost to eventual national champion Duke.

    This season, Baylor has spent much of the year in the top 10 and is a lock for his third NCAA appearance.

    However, Baylor missed the NCAA Tournament last season and in 2009. Winning in the Big 12 is fairly new to Baylor. It's not an established program like Illinois.

    Also, Baylor has to compete with Texas and Texas A&M in their state. Texas A&M has made six consecutive NCAA appearances (they are adjusting to a new coach this season after Mark Turgeron left for Maryland). Texas has not missed the NCAA Tournament since 1998.

    Both Texas and Texas A&M are down, and Baylor is by far the best school in Texas this year. Is this year a fluke or a trend? There has been a lot of noise about the Longhorn Network when it comes to football. I would think that it would help Texas basketball as well.

    Also, TCU joins the Big 12 next season. Sure, Baylor is ahead now. But if I'm TCU, I tell recruits in Texas who are considering a Christian school: "Would you rather spend the next few years in Forth Worth or Waco?"

    Drew can either stay at Baylor and continue to fight Texas and Texas A&M (not to mention Kansas) or he can come to Illinois and own the state.

    Scott Drew also has Midwestern ties. His father is Homer Drew, the longtime coach of Valparaiso. Scott's brother, Bryce, hit the game-winning shot in a 1998 NCAA Tournament game and is now the head coach of Valparaiso. Scott could travel over to Valparaiso to see his brother and his parents more easily from Champaign than from Texas.

    Illinois fans have to root for an early exit for Baylor. I can guarantee Drew won't leave if Baylor makes the Final Four this season. But if they lose in the Round of 32 (or even the Round of 64), maybe Drew sees the light and realizes the grass is greener in Champaign.

3. Shaka Smart, VCU

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    Shaka Smart's profile

    ESPN's Andy Katz said Shaka is Illinois' "first and only choice." I clearly don't agree.

    I think Smart is a great choice and a rising star in college basketball. But Brad Stevens and Scott Drew have a longer track record of success.

    Smart has only coached at Virginia Commonwealth for two full seasons before this year. They missed the NCAA's in his first season and are a bubble team at best this year. Was last season just a fluke?

    Shaka just came over from Florida (he was Billy Donovan's assistant). I remember a head coach who made the Final Four in his second season at his school, too. His name was Bruce Weber.

    Did Smart win with his predecessor's players? What will happen when he recruits his own players? Remember Stevens was an assistant at Butler for many years before he became head coach there.

    Shaka was born in Madison, Wisconsin. He graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio and had been an assistant at Akron, Clemson and Florida before becoming VCU's head coach.

    Smart doesn't seem to be as big a Midwest guy as Stevens and Drew are. I am also wondering if Smart is a huge Wisconsin fan and is waiting for Bo Ryan to retire (then again, Ryan may want one of his assistants to take over).

    One factor that can help attract Shaka to Illinois is that Mike Thomas used to be the athletic director of Akron and hired Smart there.

    I like Stevens and Drew a lot better, but Shaka would also be a great choice and would bring excitement to Champaign.

Other Possible Candidates

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    After Stevens, Drew and Smart, it doesn't look like there any home-run candidates out there.

    The best of the rest to me is Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobsen.

    Jacobsen led Northern Iowa to the 2010 Sweet 16, beating No. 1 seed Kansas along the way. Northern Iowa missed the NCAA's last season and are unlikely to make this year's tournament (they are third in the Missouri Valley Conference).

    Another possibility is to go to former Big Ten head coaches.

    Two coaches have previously coached in the Big Ten and are leading mid-major programs to possible NCAA Tournament appearances this season. They clearly have Big Ten coaching experience which none of the other candidates have. But there is a reason neither one of them is currently coaching in the Big Ten.

    Tommy Amaker coached Michigan previously and is now coaching Harvard. Last season, Harvard was a last-second shot from their first NCAA Tournament since 1946, and they are in first place again this season. Still, Amaker did not make any NCAA tournaments at Michigan and could be one of the candidates to replace Mike Krzyzewski at Duke after he retires.

    Another former Big Ten coach making a name for himself is New Mexico's Steve Alford. Before leaving for New Mexico, Alford coached at Iowa. While at Iowa, Alford made the NCAA Tournament three times and won the 2006 Big Ten Conference tournament.

    I do appreciate Bruce Weber's time at Illinois. While he did not recruit the stars of the 2005 Illinois team, he did coach them to the championship game. However, I feel it is time for a change, and if any of the "big three" are willing to leave for Illinois, Illinois has to reach for the stars.