Jeremy Werner

Illini Inquirer ranks the top candidates for the Illinois basketball coaching job

Illini Inquirer breaks down possible candidates for the Illinois basketball coaching job

In his fifth season, John Groce has a healthy roster full of his recruits. Yet, the Illini are near the bottom of the Big Ten standings for a second straight year and outside the conference's top-six for a fifth straight year.

His tenure is about to break a lot of streaks -- and not ones he wants to break. Illinois hasn't missed four straight NCAA Tounaments since 1980. Illinois hasn't had a below-.500 overall record in two straight seasons since 1975. Groce is on pace to accomplish both this season.

Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman kept Groce last spring despite on-the-court failures and off-the-court troubles. He thought Groce had the potential to land a program-changing class (he signed the Big Ten's best last November) and make progress this season (he hasn't). Whitman built up a lot of goodwill last year when on his first full day on the job, he fired football coach Bill Cubit and hired Lovie Smith. Will he really cash most of that in on retaining Groce for another season -- one in which the Illini are far from a sure bet to make the NCAA Tournament?

Sure, there is a month left in the season, but Illinois likely would have to win the Big Ten Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. We at Illini Inquirer think Whitman should make a change at the end of the season -- and we at Illini Inquirer expect him to make that change. If he does not and retains Groce -- who has the worst career Big Ten win percentage of any multi-year Illinois men's basketball coach -- Whitman is not living up to his own "We Will Win" standards.

Illinois basketball should be better. It can do much better. After all, we saw Illinois among the nation's elite just a decade ago. It's Whitman's job to find the guy who will make them better. If he doesn't, Illinois could be completely irrelevant nationally and regionally in five years.

Here are Illini Inquier's list of candidates, broken into four categories.

Make them say no

Tony Bennett | Virginia head coach | Age 47

 Tony Bennett

Why he fits: Bennett has re-built Virginia into a national power despite landing no top-40 recruits since 2011. Bennett's defense has ranked in the top-seven in defensive efficiency in five of the last six years and top-30 in offensive efficiency the last four seasons. He's built an identity of toughness and skill, similar to Wisconsin. Bennett played his college ball in Big Ten territory (Wisconsin-Green Bay) and was an assistant on his father Dick Bennett's staff at Wisconsin from 1999-2003. Despite being one of the top coaches in the country, Bennett's salary is $2.1 million and his buyout is about $3 million. Illinois may be able  to put together the resources to try to make him an offer he cannot refuse.

Why he doesn't: Some say Bennett could leave the ACC because Duke is too much to overcome. But the last three seasons, Bennett has won two ACC titles and finished one game behind 2016 ACC champion North Carolina. Also, Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez wanted Bennett last year, but Bennett reportedly wasn't swayed to Wisconsin, currently a better program than Illinois, and Alvarez gave Greg Gard the job after a strong conference season. Bennett has a great thing going and likely should receive a raise soon. At best, Illinois is a lateral move. At worst, it is a step down. Would he really leave what he's built for Illinois? Whitman would have to make one hell of  a sell.

Odds: 50-1. Never say never, but it seems highly unlikely.

Buzz Williams | Virginia Tech head coach | Age 44

 Buzz Williams

Why he fits: Williams was a name thrown around after Mike Thomas fired Bruce Weber. Williams eventually left Marquette (where he made five NCAA Tournaments in six seasons) for Virginia Tech. The Hokies improved from two ACC wins in Williams' first year to 10 conference wins in his second. Williams' teams haven't always played the prettiest brand of basketball but his programs have had a blue-collar identity of toughness. He also has familiarity with and relationships in Chicago. 

Why he doesn't: Williams would be expensive. He received a two-year contract extension last season that rung through the 2022-23 season, pays him $2.6 million this season and tops out at $3.3 million annually. His buyout hovers around $1.5 million as well. Would he leave the relative low-pressure job at Virginia Tech for the high-pressure difficult gig at Illinois?

Odds: 40-1. Williams probably would listen, but he is paid well at Virginia Tech and is just getting started with the Hokies.

Gregg Marshall | Wichita State head coach | Age 53

 Gregg Marshall

Why he fits: He'd be a splash hire, for sure. Marshall has won a combined 10 conference regular season championships in his time at Wichita State (four Missouri Valley titles) and Winthrop (six Big South titles). He is a seven time conference coach of the year (thrice MVC, four times Big South) and the 2014 Naismith Coach of the Year. His conference record as a head coach tops 76 percent. With Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet gone, this might be time to capitalize on all his success and make the move up. 

Why he doesn't: But truth is, Marshall has proven he can have as much success and wealth at Wichita State than at a power-five program. Wichita pays him a gaudy $3.3 million per year, and he has a $500,000 buyout. With the Missouri Valley down -- except for Illinois State -- Marshall has a pretty easy path to the NCAA Tournament and has shown he can advance deep into the NCAA Tournament with the Shockers. He is the king of Wichita State. He will have a statue at Wichita State. He'll likely never get fired there.  

Odds: 50-1. Why leave? He's already competing with the NCAA's best.

Archie Miller | Dayton head coach | Age 38

 Archie Miller

Why he fits: Miller has the kind of resume that makes perfect sense for a school like Illinois. Miller -- who has led the Flyers to three straight NCAA Tournaments, including the 2014 Elite Eight -- is one of the top young oaches in the country at a non-power five job. He's young and despite getting a hefty raise the last few years (he's believed to make about $1.2-$1.8 million annually), he still could cash in big from a power-five program. He recruits the city of Chicago extremely well -- Kyle Davis and Kendall Pollard both start for him, and Josh Cunningham chose to transfer to Dayton over Illinois. 

Why he doesn't: Miller, the younger brother of Arizona coach Sean Miller, can be picky. He is on the short list for any job opening out there over the next year or so.  He's passed up opportunities Would he take on the huge challenges at Illinois or wait for something better? Those in the industry think the latter.

Odds: 40-1. I've been told "no chance," but maybe Whitman can at least get a conversation?

In the wheelhouse

Cuonzo Martin | California head coach | Age 45

 Cuonzo Martin

Why he fits: This section will probably be longer for Martin than any other coach. First of all, he has interest in the job and he is affordable ($1.9 million annual salary with $1.1 million buyout). Martin, who played for Gene Keady at Purdue from 1991-95, always has been drawn to returning to the Midwest. The East St. Louis native has ties in the St. Louis area from his upbringing and his three seasons at Missouri State. He has proven to be an impact recruiter, landing two five-star prospects (Jaylen Brown and Ivan Raab) at California. He has made an impact in Chicago, beating Illinois for four-star Morgan Park point Charlie Moore -- who he could bring with him to Champaign. He and assistant Tracy Webster -- who played at Wisconsin and spent three years on Bruce Weber's Illini staff -- also have started showing interest in top Illini recruiting target Mark Smith even though Smith seems unlikely to go to Cal. They seem to be setting themselves up to hit the ground running in recruiting if it lands this job and few candidates seem more prepared to have immediate success in recruiting. And while many have questions about his X's and O's ability, Martin's teams at Missouri State, Tennessee and Cal have improved in every season at each of his three-year stops Another interesting tidbit: Martin played for Purdue when Illinois AD Josh Whitman was rooting for the Boilers as a junior high and high school student in the West Lafayette school system. Whitman is familiar with Martin, who has a lot of support from some prominent alumni. He also would give Illinois its first African-American head basketball coach, which many have a desire to see.

Why he doesn't: Martin hasn't proven to be a great coach yet, though he hasn't stayed long enough to show how his program would look long-term. The fact that he has been a job hopper, leaving each stop after three seasons, could give some pause. While Illinois has hired only one other sitting power-five coach (Lon Kruger), Whitman may be thinking larger.

Odds: 5-1. Many times, the hire that makes most sense doesn't come to fruition (Thad Matta, Shaka Smart, Dino Babers, P.J. Fleck, etc.). But, boy, this one makes a lot of sense in the short- and long-term. He also makes sense for Mizzou.

Monty Williams | San Antonio Spurs vice president of basketball operations | Age 45

 Monty Williams

Why he fits: Williams brings a great pedigree. He was an All-American player at Notre Dame, a nine-year NBA player and a five-year NBA head coach. Williams didn't have great record as head coach of the Pelicans (.439 win percentage), but he led a pretty bad franchise to two playoff berths during five seasons. Many think he got a raw deal in New Orleans. He also served as an assistant for the U.S. national team under Mike Krzyzewski. That national team is managed by prominent Illinois alum Jerry Colangelo, who has the ear of Illinois AD Josh Whitman. Williams is respected throughout the coaching community. His NBA background could be a big sell in recruiting. After the tragic loss of his wife in a car accident last year, Williams is ready to get back into coaching. Could he be the Illini version of Avery Johnson, who is having some success at Alabama? Also, Williams could join Illinois quickly -- with an announcement possible just a day or few after Whitman hypothetically dismisses Groce.

Why he doesn't: Williams has no college coaching experience nor recruiting experience, meaning his staff hires would be especially important. Williams has some similarities to Lovie Smith personality-wise and credibility-wise, but doesn't provide as big of a 'wow' factor to fans or recruits. He'd be an intriguing hire. But given the lack of a college coaching sample size, there definitely is some considerable risk.

Odds: 6-1. Williams wants to get back into coaching, and he has a big backer (Colangelo). 

Fred Hoiberg | Chicago Bulls head coach | Age 44

 Fred Hoiberg

Why he fits: Hiring a former Chicago professional coach. Where have we seen this before? Hoiberg is a big name who had big success in a five-year head coaching stint at Iowa State (115-56 overall record, four NCAA Tournament appearances), his alma mater in his hometown. With his own recruits, he ran a fun, high-powered, dynamic offense. He didn't recruit the best prep prospects but found ones who fit his scheme, and he also hit some home runs on transfers. Hoiberg's personality would play better in a campustown environment like Champaign-Urbana than in a big-city, sharp-toothed media market like Chicago.

Why he doesn't: The timing doesn't seem to work out -- unless Hoiberg quits mid-season. The NBA regular season ends in mid-April, a month after Illinois would make a change. If the Bulls make the playoffs, their season wouldn't end until early to mid-May. Illinois cannot afford to be without a coach for a month or two, not with the questions surrounding an important Class of 2017. Also, the Bulls don't seem lock a lock to fire Hoiberg, who has three years and $15 million left on his contract and is GM Gar Forman's guy. And does Hoiberg fit at Illinois? He recruited well -- especially with transfers -- to his alma mater, but how will he play in Chicago, where he's failed as a head coach through two seasons?

Odds: 15-1. This seems contingent on Hoiberg pulling a Bobby Petrino and quitting during a season. He'd have to be mighty miserable to do that. But don't count it out completely.

Bryce Drew | Vanderbilt head coach | Age 41

 Bryce Drew

Why he fits: If the Illinois job had opened last year, Drew was interested -- and he seemed like a no-brainer for Illinois. After starring at the college level and playing in the NBA, Drew took his impressive resume at alma mater Valparaiso (119-47 overall record, 63-19 conference record, made two NCAA Tournaments) and turned it into the Vanderbilt job. Those in basketball circles think Drew is one of the better X's and O's coaches in the Midwest and his playing career gives him credibility with recruits. Drew's top assistant, Roger Powell, is a decorated former Illini who would likely recruit well in the state.

Why he doesn't: Would Drew leave Vanderbilt after one season? His salary is not public (Vanderbilt is a private institution), but former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings made $2.1 million back in 2013, so Drew probably makes a tad more, meaning Illinois would have to cough up some dough to get him -- and that doesn't even count a potential buyout.

Odds: 20-1. Drew likely would listen if Illinois were really interested.



Scott Drew | Baylor head coach | Age 46

 Scott Drew

Why he fits: The Baylor athletic department is an absolute mess, and Drew might look for a way out. He's had great success taking over the complete mess left by Dave Bliss. Drew took Baylor from toxic to top-tier Big 12 program. During the last 10 seasons, he has a 237-105 overall record, owns a 91-71 Big 12 record and has made seven NCAA Tournaments (including two Elite Eights). Drew, a Missouri native who spent 10 years on his dad Homer's Valparaiso staff, has recruited elite talent to Waco, Texas -- eight NBA draft picks, including three first-round picks -- and built a program with an identity of toughness and owning the glass and the paint.

Why he doesn't: Drew does not have a clean reputation. In a 2012 CBS Sports poll of 100 college coaches, Drew was voted college basketball's second biggest cheater (34 percent) behind Kentucky's John Calipari (36 percent). It must be noted that he has not been charged with a major NCAA violation, but that reputation could keep Whitman from pursuing him. After all, Illinois has a bad history with NCAA sanctions. Oh, and Drew makes an annual salary of $2.77 million, so he'd be expensive.

Odds: 20-1. Drew would listen, but would Whitman approach him?

Frank Martin | South Carolina head coach | Age 50

 Frank Martin

Why he fits: Martin has shown twice that he's a strong coach and power-five program builder. In five years at Kansas State, he accumulated a 50-32 Big 12 record and won an NCAA Tournament game each of the four times he made the Big Dance (including a run to the Elite Eight in 2010). He surprised some by taking the South Carolina job, and while the build has been slow, Martin has built the Gamecocks into one of the stronger programs in the SEC the last two seasons.

Why he doesn't: Frank Martin's fiery demeanor has gotten him in trouble at times. He was suspended by USC in 2014 for inappropriate language aimed at players. Martin obviously has recruited well enough to win at both of his head coaching stops, but he hasn't had to attack a recruiting scene like Chicago yet -- a must for any Illinois head coach. Also, Martin makes $2.45 million annually and has a buyout of $4.8 million. That's an expensive move for Whitman.

Odds: 30-1

Ben Howland | Mississippi State head coach | Age 59

 Ben Howland

Why he fits: Howland considered the Illinois job in 2012 but stayed at UCLA one more year. He may regret that move now since UCLA fired him the next year. He landed at Mississippi State, which isn't nearly as good of a job as Illinois. Howland would have the best resume of any previous Illinois hire. In ten years at UCLA, he had a .685 winning percentage, won four Pac-12 titles and made three consecutive Final Fours (including a runner-up finish in 2006). He has been an ace recruiter for a long time, including at Mississippi State -- where he has landed the No. 8 recruiting class in 2016 and the No. 18 recruiting class in 2017, landing six top-100 prospects between those two classes. 

Why he doesn't fit: Howland really trailed off during his last four seasons at UCLA, averaging 13 losses per year. He may be on the downturn of his career rather than ready for a resurgence. Howland's UCLA teams also were subject to some NCAA scrutiny -- it happens when you get five-star recruits -- that were distracting and embarrassing. In that CBS poll of biggest cheaters, Howland received the third most votes behind Calipari and Scott Drew. llinois' history would suggest that the Illini will try to avoid that again. Howland also is just in his second season at Mississippi State, making $2.05 million annually.

Odds: 35-1. Howland likely would have interest, but expect Whitman to look to go a different direction.

Greg McDermott| Creighton head coach | Age 52

 Greg McDermott

Why he fits: McDermott, with the help of All-American son Doug, helped Creighton develop into a true power in the Missouri Valley Conference, helping the Blue Jays earn a spot in the revamped Big East Conference. Since joining the Big East in 2013, McDermott has recruited at a high level, signing three four-star prospects and a five-star prospect. The Blue Jays were a top-10 teamin the country before star transfer Mo Watson suffered a season-ending knee injury. He makes $1.37 million annually, so a big offer could sway him.

Why he doesn't:  McDermott has never left the Great Plains, coaching at North Dakota (1989-94) as an assistant, Wayne State (1994-2000), North Dakota State (2000-01), Northern Iowa (2001-06), Iowa State (2006-10) and Creighton (2010-present). He seems to be in his comfort zone there, and the pressures of the Illinois job, including recruiting Chicago, may be uncomfortable for him. 

Odds: 40-1. This just doesn't seem like a "fit."

Chris Holtmann | Butler head coach | Age 45

 Chris Holtmann

Why he fits: Holtmann was one of the fast risers when he was the head coach of Gardner-Webb, but he left the Bulldogs after three seasons to join Butler as an assistant under former Illini staffer Brandon Miller. He rose to head coach after Miller left due to personal reasons after just one season -- and Holtmann has kept the Bulldogs as a consistent top-40 program. He has a near .700 overall win percentage and .600 Big East win percentage. Holtmann also has recruited pretty well in the Midwest, including two top-100 prospects during the last two years. He's on his way to making his third NCAA Tournament in three years as head coach. Holtmann is believed to make one of the lower Big East salaries, so he likely could be swayed by a Big Ten salary.

Why he doesn't: Whitman likely wants to make a bigger splash and someone who can recruit the city of Chicago. Holtmann is a former teammate of John Groce at Taylor University and served on Groce's staff at Ohio.  Holtmann's Butler contract that runs through the 2021-22 season.

Odds: 50-1. Whitman likely doesn't want to hire someone with such close ties to the coach he's replacing.

Fall-back candidates

Kevin Keatts | UNC-Wilmington head coach | Age 44

 Kevin Keatts

Why he fits: Keatts likely will be the hottest name among mid-major coaches during this cycle. He served on Rick Pitino's Louisville staff from 2011-14, including the 2013 national championship team. In his first collegiate head coaching job at UNC-Wilmington, he has dominated the Colonial Athletic Association (unlike Groce, who went just above .500 in the MAC) and is on his way to three straight conference titles and two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. He also coached at prestigious Hargrave Military Academy, which has produced several NBA players, so he has some good recruiting ties.

Why he doesn't: Keatts has few ties to the Midwest or Chicago. Illinois also seems likely to stay away from the "hot" name on the mid-major market this time around. A job in the SEC (Georgia) or ACC (NC State_ seems more likely.

Odds: 25-1. Whitman likely will look for a bigger name, but Keatts is a solid candidate.

Dan Muller | Illinois State head coach | Age 40

 Dan Muller

Why he fits: Muller has led his alma mater to the doorstep of its first NCAA Touranment appearance since he was a player and team captain in 1998. The Redbirds have become one of the best Missouri Valley programs, and Muller has developed an identity of length, athleticism and toughness. The Redbirds are one of the best defensive teams in the country and could make a run in March.

Why he doesn't: In January, Illinois State fans were starting to make up coaching lists. Muller has built his alma mater into one of the better programs in a weak Missouri Valley, but he is far less proven than Bruce Weber was in 2003.

Odds: 100-1. If Illinois hires Muller -- no offense to him -- Whitman's search didn't go as planned.

Outside-the-box candidates

Lon Kruger | Oklahoma head coach | Age 64

 Lon Kruger

Why he fits: On the surface, this doesn't make much sense. Kruger just made the Final Four with Oklahoma last season, and he makes $2.75 million per year. But look at Kruger's coaching history, and he doesn't settle down for too long. He left Florida after six successful years to rebuild Illinois. After leading the Illini back to the Big Ten elite -- while Illinois AD Josh Whitman was a student-athlete with the Illini -- Kruger bolted for the NBA. After three unsuccessful seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, he landed back in the college game at UNLV. After re-energizing the Runnin' Rebels (four NCAA Tournament appearances in his last five years), he left Vegas after seven years for Norman, where he has built the Sooners into one of the Big 12's best. Kruger seems to like rebuilding projects and may have the six-year itch at Oklahoma, which is struggling this season. 

Why he doesn't: Kruger's been here and done that. He replaced the legend Lou Henson after the program struggled following NCAA sanctions and re-built the Illini into a Big Ten power, which Bill Self then elevated. Would he really want to do the same job twice? Plus, Kruger's age (64) makes him seem like a short-term solution.

Odds: 75-1.

Jay Bilas | ESPN college basketball analyst | Age 53

 Jay Bilas

Why he fits: Want to make a splash? Bilas may be the most famous name on this entire list. Players and recruits know him as one of the top college basketball analysts on ESPN. He demands respect from parents and other coaches. He still participates in some of the country's best coaching clinics. He even wrote a New York Times Bestseller book, "Toughness." Bilas reportedly makes about $500,000 a year from ESPN -- though that seems conservative -- so Illinois could multiply that a handful of times or more. Bilas has talked highly of the Illinois job in the past. He has a law degree, like Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman. Bilas should be able to draw some top coaching talent to his staff too. Bilas feels like he could be the college version of the Steve Kerr hire.

Why he doesn't fit: Bilas hasn't coached since his three-year stint at Duke -- which included three Final Fours and two national championships -- ended in 1992. Would he really leave a great job at ESPN to coach? Most think the outspoken Bilas is more likely to pursue a job that can enact bigger change to college athletics, like NCAA president.

Odds: 100-1. If Bilas wanted back into coaching, wouldn't someone have persuaded him to do it during the last 15 years?


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