Who’s got next at Illinois?
Speculation surrounding the flagging Illini seems to have moved on. It’s no longer a question of whether John Groce should be fired.
Congrats to Groce and his players for a job well done at Northwestern on Tuesday. But that doesn't change the fact that, barring a miracle, these Illinois seniors will be the first four-year class that doesn't play in the NCAA tournament since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Also, the Northwestern win raises the question of whether coaching is the reason Illinois hasn't enjoyed more successful efforts like that this season.
Which is why, despite a feel-good win, we’re here to talk about this: Who’s the next guy?
You want names. I’ve got names. I'll give you eight for now. I haven’t explored them with the in-depth vetting that Josh Whitman and his trusted advisers will need.
But here are some guys to look at:
@ Chris Mack, 47, Xavier. He’s worked for the late Xavier/Wake Forest coach, Skip Prosser, and Arizona coach Sean Miller. . . . has been to the NCAA tournament six times in seven Musketeer years—with three Sweet 16s, two second-rounds, one first round.
@ Kevin Keatts, 44, UNC-Wilmington. Worked for Rick Pitino at Louisville. In two-plus seasons at Wilmington, he is 64-26, including 36-12 in the Colonial. He’s 2-for-2 in conference championships, and in the hunt for a third. The Seahawks played in the NCAA tournament last March. And. . . he coaches in Michael Jordan's hometown.
@ Monty Williams, 45, former New Orleans Pelicans head coach (2010-15), Associate head coach, OKC Thunder (2015-16). Played at Notre Dame and put together a 10–year NBA career. Was an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski (along with Tom Thibodeau and Jim Boeheim) on the U.S. national team, where former Illini Jerry Colangelo is executive director.
@ Will Wade, VCU, 34. Former assistant to Tommy Amaker at Harvard and Shaka Smart at VCU. Spent two years as head coach at Chattanooga, went 22-10 in 2014-15, then returned as VCU head coach when Smart left for Texas. Wade is in his second season at VCU, where he is 42-16, including a second-round NCAA trip last spring.
Those are the four guys where I would start. But there are many more candidates to consider.
One that won’t be happening is Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. It’s an interesting thought, but not happening for a variety of reasons. For one, the Bulls would owe him a ton of money. For another, his bosses like him, and know he's playing a tough hand. I have good sources on that one.
Here are some other names to consider
@ Archie Miller, 38, Dayton. Worked for older brother, Arizona’s Sean Miller, and Ohio State’s Thad Matta. Is 132-60 (and counting) with the Flyers. Has guided them to last three NCAA tourneys, including Elite Eight in 2014. If Matta leaves Ohio State for health reasons (chronic back troubles), Archie Miller would make a lot of sense there.
@ Steve Wojciechowski, 40, Marquette. Hasn’t lit it up with Golden Eagles (48-40 in two-plus seasons). But this longtime assistant to Mike Krzyzewski is following similar path of his former Duke teammate, Northwestern’s Chris Collins.
@ Cuonzo Martin, 45, Cal-Berkeley. Former East St. Louis/Purdue sharpshooter is doing some good things at Cal, after doing some good things at Missouri State and Tennessee. Recently signed an extension through 2020-21. But he could be enticed to come to Champaign, some insiders think.
@ Dan Muller, 40, Illinois State. The Redbirds certainly have improved on his watch. He’s familiar with the state, and deserves a look. He probably doesn’t have a big enough resume yet. But that can change faster than you can say, ``March Madness.''
All of the above eight candidates have pluses and minuses. But that's a fact of college-basketball-coaching life. Even places like Indiana, North Carolina and UCLA have made hires that have misfired.
I’m more interested in the top four than the second four. Mainly because I am not convinced that Archie Miller or Cuonzo Martin would be interested, and because I don’t see enough reasons for Illinois to pursue Wojciechowski or Muller.
That said, the top four have their wild-card questions, too. One key area is assessing how well they’re likely to recruit at Illinois.
Another key is making sure they assemble a strong, balanced set of assistants from the get-go. Whitman needs to be diligent about making sure that happens.
Recruiting, though, is the big key for the next Illinois coach. Except for Bill Self, who’s a future Hall of Famer, all of the Illinois basketball coaches since Lou Henson have had recruiting issues.
In hindsight, Lon Kruger recruited players that he (and his successor, Self) could win with, even though Kruger took heat for not doing well in Chicago.
Weber caught some tough breaks, notably losing Eric Gordon to Indiana and having Jereme Richmond not pan out. But he never figured out how to recruit what he needed to keep Illinois on top.
With Groce, there’s been no there-there. Although the upcoming class, which he apparently won’t coach, is highly rated, it seems to be a case of too-little-too-late.
Which is why athletic director Josh [#WeWillWin] Whitman seems poised to make a change.