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Kentucky Basketball: 5 Best Candidates to Succeed John Calipari... Eventually

Paul AblesContributor IIIJanuary 4, 2017

Kentucky Basketball: 5 Best Candidates to Succeed John Calipari... Eventually

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    First of all, not to worry... John Calipari is not going anywhere for the time being. There are no NBA rumors swirling about Calipari leaving the program, so this article is not an attempt to speculate about his job status with the university.

    However, it is interesting to think about which college coach would be the right man for the job if Calipari left the program. The Kentucky job is arguably the best in college basketball, and it would attract plenty of attention from the nation's best coaches.

    At the same time, it will be difficult for the next candidate to fill the shoes of Calipari. He has hauled in the nation's top recruiting class each year of his tenure, while also winning a national championship and making it to the Final Four during his first three seasons here. No coach could match the recruiting acumen and instantaneous success that Cal has spoiled UK fans with here lately.

    With that said, there are some excellent coaches who would jump at the opportunity to take the reins of the nation's hottest basketball program. The following slides have the five best candidates for the job if it were to come open in the recent future.

    It must be stated that coaches such as Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Bill Self are likely to remain at their respective schools, so I have only listed candidates that would be legitimately interested in accepting the Kentucky position.

Shaka Smart, VCU

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    Shaka Smart emerged onto the college basketball scene after leading the Virginia Commonwealth Rams to the NCAA tournament in 2011. The team was one of the most controversial bubble teams to make it in, but it proved everyone wrong after shocking the country and advancing to the 2011 NCAA Final Four.

    Smart then became a household name, largely due to his energetic charisma and an entertaining playing style. He had a few chances to leave VCU, but he chose to stay and go for another run.

    The Rams then qualified for the 2012 NCAA tournament, but this time there were no pundits doubting their worthiness. In fact, VCU was a favorite pick to upset some teams and advance far into the tournament yet again.

    However, Smart's magical run was cut short by the Indiana Hoosiers in the round of 32. Regardless, he is still a hot coaching prospect and even turned down an offer to coach the Illinois men's basketball program.

    Shaka is staying at VCU and leads them into a new journey as a member of the Atlantic 10 conference. He is likely holding out for a high-profile job and appears to be patiently waiting for the right opportunity to strike.

    The job in Lexington, KY could be open if head coach John Calipari were to leave in the next few years. Obviously, this would be the type of position that Smart is holding out for and he would likely jump at the chance to take over the hottest college basketball program in the country.

    Smart is known as a player's coach and is full of energy and charisma. He would be popular with the fan base and he employs a playing style that attracts top recruits. Smart has also exhibited success in the NCAA tournament, which is likely the most important factor of all in deciding the next head coach.

    At the same time, it is not certain that the Kentucky administration would seriously pursue Smart for their search. He appears to be a bright young coach and would relish the opportunity to coach the Cats. However, coaching at VCU is a completely different animal than taking over Big Blue Nation. The responsibilities and pressure would be immense, and it is not known if Kentucky would hire a coach who has not excelled in the spotlight before.

    They tried this before with Billy Gillispie, who was the hot coaching commodity after a successful tournament run with Texas A&M. That hire completely backfired, and it might give the UK administration pause in considering the VCU coach.

    Either way, Shaka Smart appears to be in prime position to land at a major program soon and would be an interesting choice to succeed Calipari in the future.

Brad Stevens, Butler

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    Brad Stevens nearly pulled off the impossible when he led the Butler Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA Finals appearances in 2010 and 2011. The school had never advanced beyond the Sweet 16, but Stevens coached his teams to the sport's final game and narrowly lost to Connecticut and Duke for the NCAA championship.

    Stevens took over the Butler job in 2007, and he has led the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament in four of the five seasons that he has been there. His motivation tactics, coaching ability and knowledge of the game have turned Stevens into one of the hottest coaching prospects in the country, but he has declined all coaching offers and plans to remain at Butler for the time being.

    Because of his young age and impressive NCAA tournament results, Stevens is in no rush to leave Butler and can wait until a major college head coaching position is open. If John Calipari were to leave Kentucky, this would certainly be a program that would interest him and could lure him away from Butler.

    The Wildcats would surely pursue him as a strong candidate for the job, as he has proven to be extremely intelligent and connects well with young players. He has also learned how to wade through the NCAA tournament the hard way. If he coached at Kentucky, the resources and recruiting potential that he would possess would make him path towards a championship much easier to accomplish. 

    However, Stevens does carry some risk. He has not been a head coach for very long, and the pressure at Butler is nowhere near the scrutiny he would face at Kentucky. It is unsure if his personality would fit the Kentucky job. Also, many pundits wonder if his back-to-back NCAA final appearances were a fluke. 

    Regardless, he is certainly an intriguing prospect and could be a strong candidate for the job if Calipari leaves Lexington.

Billy Donovan, Florida

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    This is the coach that is seemingly always on the short list of candidates for the Kentucky head coaching position. The previous two openings speculated that Billy Donovan was one of the favorites to land the job. His time as an assistant coach at Kentucky and his success at Florida seemed to make him a perfect match.

    However, he turned down the position and never stepped foot in Lexington. He insisted that he was happy coaching the Florida basketball program, even declining a head coaching position with the NBA's Orlando Magic at the last minute.

    With that being said, Donovan is still a premier candidate to coach at Kentucky if John Calipari leaves in the near future. For starters, he has won two NCAA national championships and is one of the best recruiters in the country. He also has that Kentucky connection that fans love in a new hire. 

    It is true that Billy turned down the position before, but the Kentucky job was very different at those times. When Tubby Smith left, the Kentucky program had fallen in stature and the nation's top recruits continually turned down the Wildcats. It was a high-profile position that had too much uncertainty at the time.

    Smith's departure also came right on the heels of Donovan winning his second consecutive title at Florida. His future seemed extremely bright there, and they were the best program in the SEC. For Donovan, there was little incentive to leave a low-pressure job at the nation's hottest basketball program to take over a pressure cooker that had lost its stature as a national power.

    The school hired Billy Gillispie, then quickly fired him two seasons later. Yet again, the Kentucky program was in limbo and just came off of its first NIT appearance in decades. Gillispie wreaked havoc on the Kentucky brand and turned it into a less desirable position than it was before he was hired.

    Yet again, there was no reason for Donovan to leave Florida. Although he himself came off an appearance in the NIT, Florida was still a better basketball school at the time than Kentucky. 

    Then came Calipari, who has completely restored the Kentucky program and now has the Wildcats back on the pedestal of college basketball. They are the defending national champions heading into next season, and the nation's top recruits are buzzing about UK like no other school in recent memory.

    This is why Donovan might be interested in the position if it comes open. He has seen what Calipari has done with the school and sees its full potential. There is no doubt that the Kentucky men's basketball program can succeed at the highest level more than any other school when it is run by the right man.

    Donovan would be a great replacement for Calipari if he were to leave, and he would be more tempted than ever to accept the offer now that he has seen Kentucky running at its fullest potential.

Sean Miller, Arizona

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    The current head coach of the Arizona Wildcats has a good chance of eventually coaching another Wildcat team in Lexington. Sean Miller has taken over the Arizona job, replacing school legend Lute Olson as the leader of the basketball program.

    Miller has quickly established himself as one of the best young coaches in the country and appears to have Arizona back on the road to national prominence. His 2012 recruiting class includes three 5-star prospects and he returns a roster that nearly advanced to the NCAA tournament last season. 

    Miller led the Wildcats to the NCAA Elite Eight in just his second season as head coach, where they lost a heartbreaker to eventual champion Connecticut.

    In fact, Miller has had success in the NCAA tournament at both of his coaching stops. Before leading Arizona, Sean coached the Xavier Musketeers to multiple postseason appearances, including two trips to the Sweet 16 and one to the Elite Eight. 

    On the recruiting trail, Miller is known as an excellent communicator and motivator. He has been an excellent spokesman for the Arizona basketball brand, which is certainly an important skill to any potential hire at the University of Kentucky.

    He is also a young coach who has not won a NCAA title. Therefore, he has plenty of years ahead of him and has plenty of motivation to lead a school to a national championship.

    If the Kentucky job became available, Miller would instantly become one of the finalists for the position. If he continues to have success at Arizona, then he will have displayed plenty of ability to lead a major program back to prominence.

    His recruiting style would fit in well at Kentucky, where he would be expected to bring in some of the nation's best players every year. He would be an interesting fit if selected as the replacement for John Calipari.

Thad Matta, Ohio State

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    All of the coaches on this list are good candidates, but Thad Matta is perhaps the best of them all. He has led a resurgence of the Ohio State basketball program in recent years and has been extremely successful during his tenure.

    Matta has taken the Buckeyes on some deep tournament runs, including his appearance in the 2007 NCAA National Final and last season's finish in the 2012 Final Four.

    Matta has also led the school to multiple appearances in the Sweet 16. At his prior coaching spot, Matta led the Xavier Musketeers to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2004. 

    In addition to tournament success, Matta has developed into one of the country's top basketball recruiters. His 2006 recruiting class was ranked first in the nation and consisted of college superstars Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook.

    Matta struck gold again two years ago by securing a commitment from Jared Sullinger, who was one of the nation's highest-rated post players in the 2010 recruiting class. Sullinger led the Buckeyes to the Final Four last season, along with other Matta recruits Aaron Craft and William Buford.

    In other words, Matta has everything that Kentucky would be looking for if it had to replace John Calipari. He is an elite recruiter, an extremely successful coach, and he has shown great ability in leading a national powerhouse and dealing with the pressure of high expectations.

    Granted, nowhere has the pressure that the Kentucky job has, but leading Ohio State would give fans and administrators confidence in Matta's ability to lead Kentucky into a new era of prominence. He would be an excellent coach and is still relatively young. The Wildcats would be thrilled to land Thad if Calipari left the program. 

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