It has been over two weeks since Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas let go of Bruce Weber. Thomas continued to make the right moves after the firing by pursuing VCU’s Shaka Smart with a huge offer last week. Reports indicated that the offer on the table was $2.5 million per year, which certainly sent the message that Illinois is committed to winning, at least from a monetary perspective. ESPN analysts such as Jay Bilas have been raving about the Illinois gig being one of the top coaching jobs in the country. Everything was in place, but Smart declined the offer. After Shaka Smart, reports were floating around that Brad Stevens was another potential target for the job but he quickly squashed any such rumors. Other coaches that have denied interest in the job include Alabama’s Anthony Grant and Wichita State’s Greg Marshall so any move to Illinois may be out of question right now. Kansas State’s Frank Martin has expressed interest to leave Manhattan, wound up in South Carolina instead. So where does Illinois go now? The Illini faithful are a little confused because money is not the issue anymore. The athletic department wants to hire the best coach available and will spend a decent amount of change, but will the other good candidates make the move?
Before we move onto the next list of candidates, it is worth examining if Illinois is still a top job after missing the tournament three out of the past five seasons. Historically, since the Lou Henson era started in Champaign, Illinois has been a competitive program in the college basketball landscape. Regularly competing for Big Ten championships, a couple of Final Four appearances and overall an exciting brand of basketball has transformed Illinois into a legit Big Ten program. The potential recruiting pipeline through Chicago is also an impressive factor for coaches to consider due to the heavy pool of talent flowing through. But in a “what have you done for me lately?” world, Illinois is probably the sixth, maybe even the seventh best job in the B1G, right now – after Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana and Michigan. Sure, Indiana has been horrible during Crean’s first three seasons, but to quote him again, “it is Indiana.” Michigan is on the upswing with a top recruiting class coming to Ann Arbor and a B1G regular season championship. Purdue is only gearing up for better seasons under Matt Painter. Illinois’ potential over the next 3-4 seasons is not as good as the top five or six teams. Prospective coaches also realize that you can’t just recruit Chicago and expect to cruise in this conference because you need to bring your A-game to the white board. B1G hosts the best basketball minds in the country, specifically from the ones mentioned as the top six teams right now.