Shaka Smart turns down Illinois, will remain at VCU

Is Shaka Smart taking the riskier road again this offseason?

Well, only time will tell.

VCU put out a press release this afternoon confirming several reports that Smart will remain its head basketball coach, turning down the same position at Illinois. It drove home the point with a photo on the front of that shows Smart giving two thumbs up with the message of "He's Our Guy."

The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that Smart turned down an offer of at least $2.5 million per season to replace Bruce Weber, who Illinois fired after nine seasons earlier this month.

"I am very grateful for the support and belief in the coaching staff and basketball program that comes from the very top of our university's leadership — President Rao, Athletic Director Norwood Teague and the VCU Board of Visitors — as well as our phenomenal fans," Smart said in the statement. "There are great things to accomplish at VCU and I'm looking forward to building on the successes of our program and university."

The statement also said that Smart has agreed in principle to some changes in his current contract, the details of which are being finalized. Just last April, he agreed to a new 8-year deal that pays him $1.2 million annually in base pay.

Smart topped a list of options that The Dagger put out on the day Weber was relieved of his duties, and the program shouldn't have a tough time making a quality hire in the next few weeks.

Smart, who after leading VCU to the Final Four a year ago took the Rams to a CAA tournament title and another NCAA tourney berth this year, was the logical first choice for the Illini. Smart grew up just a few hours north of Champaign, and on top of his obvious coaching chops, many thought he could make quite a splash recruiting from the deep prep talent pool in Chicago.

Instead, Smart is taking a calculated risk.

Yes, he's going to be paid handsomely, but coaches who have remained loyal to mid-major powers have had mixed results.

He could turn out to be the East Coast's version of Mark Few at Gonzaga, who has turned down interest form several 'power conference' programs over the years and has built a machine of his own in Spokane, one that makes the NCAA tournament every year and wins WCC titles.

On the far other end of the spectrum would be the example of Chris Lowery, who was fired after this season at Southern Illinois. Following a Sweet Sixteen run in 2007, he turned away bigger programs to remain in Carbondale, but found it tough to maintain the program's success both on the floor and on the recruiting trail at a rural outpost surrounded by Big 12 and Big Ten powers. His eight-year run at SIU was capped by four straight losing seasons.

VCU is coming off of a school-record 29-win season, and graduates just one senior from the 2011-12 squad. And Smart has done a good job of consistently not only getting good talent to Richmond, but also developing it. Should he stick it out at VCU for the long haul, it looks like he's on the same path as Few.

Now we'll get to see if that's an accurate assessment, and Illinois is left to look elsewhere.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for Follow him on Twitter at @ryanmgreene.

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