Search for next UNC basketball coach has to start at the very top: Stevens, Few, Wright

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The only debate is whether North Carolina is the best job in college basketball or one of the four best jobs in college basketball. That’s as far as it goes.

Given that, and the lack of a clear and obvious successor to Roy Williams within the Carolina family, it is incumbent upon UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham to start at the top and work his way down. If that means landing, in the end, on Hubert Davis or Wes Miller, so be it.

But the search cannot start there.

It’s a bit of an odd circumstance for North Carolina, which has produced no shortage of successful head coaches over the decades. When Williams turned down UNC the first time, Matt Doherty was winning games at Notre Dame. When Doherty didn’t work out, there was still Williams at Kansas, among others.

A bunch of college coaches have had chances but failed to make an impact, the Buzz Petersons and Jeff Lebos and so forth. Meanwhile, the old-time NBA pipeline, which generated Larry Brown and Doug Moe and George Karl over the years, has dried up.

There isn’t that coach out there now. Stanford’s Jerod Haase is more from the Williams tree than the Carolina family. Jerry Stackhouse hasn’t had much success yet at Vanderbilt. King Rice has yet to make the NCAA tournament at Monmouth.

So it has to start with Brad Stevens. If there ever was a job that would bring him back to the college game from the Boston Celtics, it’s either this or Duke. They’re both going to be open at some point in the near future; Williams just got the Tar Heels there first. Of course, at this point, talking about Stevens coming back to college is like talking about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. It’s a fun thought, but it isn’t going to happen.

Cunningham has to make that call, though.

Who else could replace Roy Williams?

The next name on the list is a bit preoccupied at the moment. Mark Few is two wins away from a perfect season and national title at Gonzaga, but he has proven he can sustain excellence over a long period of time, even in the current basketball environment, which is what North Carolina’s next coach is going to have to be able to do.

This isn’t a building job. It’s a sustaining job.

Now, if Few does go undefeated at Gonzaga, he really wouldn’t have any reason to leave, but Williams and Few are so close, a conspiracy theorist might plausibly wonder if Williams’ retirement was contingent on Few’s willingness to take over.

Then there’s Jay Wright, the East Coast version of Few, but with the rings already, one torn from Williams’ grasp. Wright is as good as anyone doing the job today with the record to prove it. Villanova might be the ACC’s 16th team if one is ever needed, someday, but North Carolina has resources, history and the kind of national fan base Villanova and Gonzaga can’t even fathom.

Those are calls Cunningham has to make. It doesn’t mean he’ll like what he hears. But the stature of the job — and the stakes of the hire — demand it.

Stay in the Carolina family?

There may also be a wild card out there, whether it’s a coach from the next generation like Alabama’s Nate Oats, who would certainly bring his own baggage to the rivalry with Duke, or someone like Colorado’s Tad Boyle, from the Kansas/Larry Brown tree. There’s a lot more risk in that, but perhaps more reward than staying within the family.

Having exhausted those options, if North Carolina ends up plucking another branch off the Dean Smith tree, so be it. Davis’ lack of head-coaching experience is a concern, but he’s had a decade to watch and learn from Williams, and his personal experience bridges the Dean Smith and Williams eras of North Carolina basketball. He has had no shortage of time to prepare for this moment.

If success as a head coach is more important, then Miller is the obvious choice. His work at UNC-Greensboro has been nothing short of impressive, with five straight 20-win seasons and a pair of NCAA tournament appearances at a job that wasn’t exactly a basketball hotbed before he arrived.

He played for Williams, has deep roots in the state and easily could have gotten the Wake Forest job last spring that went to Steve Forbes instead.

Miller is only 38. He could be North Carolina’s basketball coach for decades, if things worked out. North Carolina’s search can’t start that close to home, but it could end there.

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