VCU's Shaka Smart appears to be the early frontrunner for the now-vacant Illinois job. (AP)
His run with the Illini started with a bang, as he took the program to the doorstep of a national title in his first season, but a frustrating decline came to a humbling end on Thursday, when Illinois was bounced in the first round of the Big Ten tournament by Iowa, 64-61.
The Illini now stand at 17-15 overall and went 6-12 in Big Ten play this season after a promising 10-0 start. Now, it's likely on to the NIT. Signs of severe cracks in the foundation came a couple weeks back, when he had some cryptic comments following a loss to Purdue, sounding like a man who knew what was coming at season's end.
This could be the most high-profile gig available this offseason, and here is a quick look at six potential candidates who could fit the bill …
Shaka Smart, VCU head coach
This is the obvious top candidate, and the name is already being thrown out left and right. Smart's name was tossed around for several jobs that came open after last season, when he took VCU on a Cinderella run to the Final Four. The job he's done this season is maybe more impressive, as he's taken the Rams on a 28-6 run after losing his top three starters off of last year's squad. Last week, they won the CAA tournament title and will be dancing again in a week. But this season showed some signs that sustained success at this level at VCU might be tough. After the Final Four jaunt, he wisely turned down several high-risk, maybe-high-reward gigs. Illinois might be pretty tempting, though, as it'll pay big money and offer the opportunity to not only coach in the Big Ten, but to take a shot at dominating the fertile recruiting ground that is Chicago. He did sign an eight-year extension at VCU after last season, but if both Smart and Illinois want it to happen, it will happen. A kicker worth keeping in mind: New Illinois AD Mike Thomas was at Akron while Smart was an assistant coach there from 2003-06.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State head coach
Another mid-major coach who signed a massive extension after last season, Marshall followed up an NIT title with a seven-year deal that includes the coveted automatic one-year rollover after each season. For some reason, though, it feels like Marshall might feel like he has a permanent home at Wichita State, where it could be argued that the Shockers are truly becoming a major program. The Shockers are 27-5 this season, and despite losing in the Missouri Valley tournament semifinals, are a lock to not only make the NCAA tournament field, but have the balance and depth to make a decent run. Heck, you could argue that Marshall's program is just as strong as the two other Division I programs in Kansas. That sounds tough to leave, but you never can know. It's clear that the man has the coaching chops, but, would his name resonate with recruits in Chicago?
Brad Stevens, Butler head coach
Ah, yes, the first name tossed around for every opening at a major program over the last two years. And with good reasons. Stevens built his profile by taking Butler to back-to-back national title games, but the Bulldogs were young and struggled this season, finishing 20-14 in a campaign that was very average. The recent success hasn't given recruiting a major jolt, but the program is far from struggling. He has four of five starters back next season and has a difference-making transfer becoming eligible in Rotnei Clarke from Arkansas. The Bulldogs have a great shot at being right back in the national picture a year from now, which would make it hard to leave. Stevens has shown several times in the last two years that he's not going to make a money-grab type of move. Would he look at Illinois that way, or as a great opportunity in the midwest, where he's clearly comfortable?
Steve Alford, New Mexico head coach
If this happened, the storylines would be plentiful and juicy. The Indiana legend who coached for eight seasons at Iowa has deep midwestern roots. Since leaving the Hawkeyes, he's enjoyed a successful five-year run at New Mexico, and is about to take the Lobos to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. The program is on very solid ground as one of the most stable in the West, the facilities have received a huge upgrade since he arrived in Albuquerque and he has every reason to be comfortable. But is there a desire to be back in the Big Ten, and to have a chance to take it to both Indiana and Iowa annually? Alford signed a lengthy extension following the 2009-10 season, and he must pay a buyout if he leaves early. The number was $400,000 if he was to leave before March 31, 2011, and drops every year after that during the life of the deal.
Reggie Theus, former New Mexico State head coach
This name may seem a tad out of place, considering Theus hasn't coached a college basketball game since 2007. But it's believed that there's a decent amount of support for the former Chicago Bulls star guard to get the job among the program's prominent boosters. Theus had a successful two-year run at New Mexico State, including an NCAA tournament berth, before leaving to coach the NBA's Sacramento Kings for a forgettable 106-game run. Before leading the Aggies, he had a nice run as a Louisville assistant under Rick Pitino. Since getting fired by the Kings early in his second season there, he's been trying to get back into the college game, pushing hard for the jobs at DePaul and UNLV — his alma mater — in the last two years. The reason for the alleged shove from the boosters might be the belief that he could recruit with big success in Chicago, which is a must to succeed at Illinois.
Chris Collins, Duke associate head coach
If the Illini are looking to go the assistant route, Collins would be worth a good, long look. Duke assistants haven't had the greatest luck as head coaches, but Collins would feel comfortable right away at Illinois, especially when it comes to recruiting in Chicago. He was largely responsible for luring former Duke star Jon Scheyer — a fellow Glenbrook North High grad — to Durham. It feels like a longshot that Illinois will go for someone without head coaching experience, but if they're going to take that risk, this is where they might look.