Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Werner: Whitman's work worth the wait?

Illini fans wait breathlessly as Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman weeds through his men's basketball coaching candidates

CHAMPAIGN - The first few days of a coaching search are full of excitement and endless possibilities. Once the search hits about Day Four, the anxiety and hysteria truly takes hold.

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With such a high demand for news yet such a low supply of credible information, rumors and theories abound -- and Illini fans sweat.

Meanwhile, Missouri and NC State hired the expected, good-fit candidates: Cal's Cuonzo Martin for Mizzou and UNC-Wilmington's Kevin Keatts for NC State. Illinois fans fret while they wait to see if second-year athletics director Josh Whitman can connect on one of his big swings.

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There's reason to worry. Whitman's predecessor also swung for the fences -- and struck out several times. After he fired Bruce Weber in 2012, Mike Thomas waited for Shaka Smart to exit the NCAA Tournament, and then whiffed. He then closed his eyes and took a big hack at Butler's Brad Stevens. Big whiffer. He ultimately settled -- like he did for Tim Beckman during his football search -- on Ohio coach John Groce, fresh off his second late run to a MAC Tournament Championship and subsequent NCAA Tournament. 

Five years later, Whitman was forced to finally cleanse Illinois of Thomas' terrible trio of hires, giving Groce and women's coach Matt Bollant the axe this past week. Whitman must prove he can do what Thomas cannot. He certainly crushes Thomas in charisma and passion.

Illinois had interest in Martin, and the Chicago Tribune reported that Keatts was on Whitman's list.  But the Illini weren't prepared to make moves on hires perceived as "doubles."  The typical mid-major coaching hire -- even if they're qualified -- won't seem to satisfy this time.

After a decade of mostly irrelevancy -- just three NCAA Tournament appearances and two top-four Big Ten finishes -- Whitman is assembling a war chest (up to $25 million) to offer a "home-run" hire who can quickly restore Illini basketball's image and credibility, much like his hire of 11-year NFL head coach Lovie Smith did for a floundering football program.

Is that desperation? Sure. Illinois is desperate to be relevant again, fun again -- dare I say -- great again. And if you have the money, why wouldn't you use those resources to invest into the best for your program?

The heat of the spotlight now is on Whitman to get it done. His top target were/are participating in the NCAA Tournament -- for four years a foreign place for the Illini -- so the action should pick up shortly.

But which of those targets can most be easily be swayed from his current comfortable position?

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Dayton's Archie Miller now is available after Dayton was eliminated from the tournament by Wichita State. But the Flyers coach makes north of $2 million annually and could have interest from Indiana. Plus, most expect that he eventually would like to replace mentor Thad Matta at Ohio State. But will that gig open anytime soon? And Miller certainly stay at Dayton forever. Whitman should make him an offer he can't refuse.

Wichita State's Gregg Marshall isn't happy about the NCAA's seeding in recent seasons and wants to get to a bigger conference. But the Shockers are expected to move to the AAC soon, and money isn't an issue. Marshall makes $3.5 million per year, he'll have a great team again next year and the Koch family (Shockers supporters worth a reported $80 billion) can bankroll him as much as he wants. Indiana (and eventually North Carolina) is more likely to entice him. But will either want the 54-year-old in the next few years?

Virginia's Tony Bennett has built a power at Virginia, winning two of the last five ACC titles. He's not one to run from competition, but a doubling of his salary could help him get a raise from Virginia. And if the Cavaliers happened to shy away, maybe the Wisconsin native would return to his Big Ten roots?

Baylor's Scott Drew received NCAA sanctions for impermissible phone calls, so he wouldn't seem to fit Whitman's call for integrity. But extra phone calls isn't nearly as concerning as what else has happened in the Baylor athletics department the past few decades. Drew may want to escape the chaos around him and return to his Midwest roots at a basketball program that will truly appreciate his level of success.

San Antonio Spurs staffer Monty Williams reportedly spurned Illini interest last week in the interest of again becoming an NBA head coach (which he likely will have the opportunity this summer). But if Williams Whitman's No. 1 guy -- he's incredible impressive and did well with little in New Orleans -- can the Illini AD sway him to re-think that position?

All of the above would definitely be more than doubles. But will any actually say "yes" to an Illinois address?

The national and Chicago media doubts it. Those in coaching circles doubt it. Illinois isn't as big time of a job as the Illini think it is, they say. And you know what? They've been right for the past decade-plus. 

But that's the narrative Whitman is attempting to change. It's the one he must change if he's sick of losing headlines to Northwestern and finishing in Penn State territory in the standings -- which you know the orange-and-blue bleeding, ultra-competitive AD is.

With the job posting expiring on Monday, Whitman should answer that question next week -- unless his target advances to the Sweet 16, which could prolong the wait until the following week.

Will Whitman's work be worth the wait? Refresh that message board and Twitter again.

What's Whitman's next move? Latest buzz on the premium board


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