I did not fill out NCAA brackets this year. As a heart-broken Fighting Illini fan, there was something deflating about the end of the season, firing Bruce Weber, who would have been the coach of the Illini as long as we would have let him. The AD seemed to have decided he was going to let him go this year, which is not surprising for new athletic directors to want to pick their own coaches. However, I don't think Mike Thomas truly understood the hurtful way in which Bill Self left. When Lon Krueger left for the NBA, we wished him well and even rooted for UNLV on occasion. Contrast that with Kansas' loss to Bucknell in the tournament a few years ago: I had a photo of Bill Self crying at the end of the game hanging in my office for a month and a half.
So, this year is Illinois coaching auditions. Ooohhh.... but who shall we choose? If Mike Thomas has asked a handful of alumni about this, he'll have a simple list: someone who can win, someone who will get the kids to go to class (not Calipari), and someone who won't see the Illinois job as a stepping stone to a better job (not Self). We want a Coach K. In fact, it stings a bit that Mike Krzyzewski is from Chicago. The next coach of Fighting Illini basketball should be someone who understands that the Big Ten (with a margin of error of 2) is the big stage, and Illinois can be a force within that stage. A connection to the Midwest, therefore, might be a nice bump to understand this but not critical. So, would the 32 coaches who won in the 2nd Round (formerly First Round) want the Illinois job and be happy to coach there? Let's break it down. Your pool is Kentucky, Iowa State, Virginia Commonwealth, Colorado, Baylor, Xavier, Lehigh, Michigan State, St. Louis, New Mexico, Louisville, Murray State, Marquette, Florida, Norfolk State, Syracuse, Kansas State, Vanderbilt, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Florida State, Gonzaga, Ohio State, North Carolina, Creighton, South Florida, Ohio, NC State, Georgetown, Purdue, Kansas.
First Cut: No lateral moves. Big Ten Coaches don't need to move to another Big Ten school. Eliminates: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Purdue
Second Cut: No SEC schools. Anyone who takes a job in the SEC cannot be serious about academics by rule. Eliminates: Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt - although a good case could be made for rescuing Illinois-native Kevin Stallings, but after 12 years at Vandy, rescue would probably involve moving the school to the ACC.
Third Cut: Kansas. While Bill Self may regret the move to Kansas after the gutting of the Big XII, we don't want him.
Fourth Cut: Someone who wants to move. We may as well take out Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Roy Williams at North Carolina. Those guys are not moving. Actually, let's take out Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg. As an Ames native who played at Iowa State, he's not leaving, and the alumni won't let him be fired. Job for life, my friend.
Now we are left with 19. Schools in the Midwest get an automatic bye into the next round: Xavier, Lehigh, Marquette, Cincinnati, Creighton, Ohio, and St. Louis. Coaches at other schools need to prove a bit of Midwest loyalty by being from the region, or playing Big Ten ball. This brings through VCU's Shaka Smart (from Wisconsin), Baylor's Scott Drew (son to Valpo coach Homer Drew, but not the son who hit that shot in the 1998 tournament), New Mexico's Steve Alford (from Indiana), Kansas State's Frank Martin (former Cincinnati Assistant), South Florida's Stan Heath (from Michigan), and NC State's Mark Gottfried (from Ohio).
Eliminates: Colorado, Louisville, Murray State, Norfolk State, Florida State, Gonzaga, Georgetown
Sixth Cut: No Hoosiers. The only coach more hated by Illinois fans than Bill Self is Bob Knight. No Knight disciples. Eliminates: New Mexico
Seventh Cut: No issues of ethical misconduct, NCAA investigations, or being the assistant to someone who is an A-Hole. Eliminates: Kansas State, due to Martin being an assistant to Bob Huggins. Baylor's Scott Drew - possible? A lot of questions about how he contacts potential recruits, but no firm investigation. Xavier, Cincinnati due to that nasty fist-fight - we don't need to be acting like Pacers or Pistons.
Eigth Cut: Really, they have to want to move. No one who is either in a first year with the program, or has more than 10 years with the school. Eliminates: NC State - although this is a soft elimination for someone who went to high school in Illinois... might be able to lure him away.
We're left with some intriguing prospects:
Brett Reed, Lehigh. Make that Dr. Brett Reed. No, "Doc" is not a nickname, he has his Ph.D. from Wayne State University in Instructional Systems and Sports Administration. Will this guy be able to teach students how to play ball? Yes. As a Michigan native who went to Florida for school then returned to Detroit, the only "step up" he may consider would be to replace Izzo at Michigan State. He'd be a great addition to a program that needs its players to get excited about classes and actually attend them. Plus, with the Ph.D, it is possible that Varsity Basketball could be offered as a class in the department of Kinesiology, and students could be graded on their effort and receive 1 to 2 hours per semester. Messed up on your freethrow drills = participation points deducted.
Rick Majerus, St. Louis: Wisconsin native, we'd be eating a lot of bratwurst in Champaign. Downside, eating a lot of bratwurst means that Majerus may not be long for the world. Which leads us to...
Buzz Williams, Marquette: He seems to jump around a lot, so you'd have to ask whether he'd jump ship if the Texas or Texas A&M job opened up. He seems to be leading Marquette as well as (or better than) Tom Crean, but raiding Marquette for coaching talent just feels done already.
Greg McDermott, Creighton: Like most people from Iowa, this guy seems kind of boring. But kind of boring is preferable to being Rick Petino. However, it doesn't appear that he has the coaching chops for a marquee program. Good for a program like Creighton where winning the conference tourney is your yardstick for performance, but not the Big Ten where we want a Sweet 16 appearance every other year.
Stan Heath, South Florida: Former assistant for Tom Izzo, this could be a good fit for Illinois, but a so-so record at South Florida makes you wonder if he can really coach given that he was fired from Arkansas. The relationship to the SEC makes me wonder if he'll actually have kids stick around for their degrees, or if he'll babysit them for 2 years before they head off to the NBA. We don't need to be another Ohio State, especially if they ever start to enforce those graduation requirements. But, he did get Kent State to the Elite Eight, so you know, that's something. Or may be to an AD from Akron... who may also be interested in...
John Groce, Ohio: Former Thad Matta assistant. He's from Muncie. He's boring. But, he did beat Michigan. We like beating Michigan.
Shaka Smart, VCU: I don't want Coach Smart to be the Illinois Basketball Coach. I kind of want him to be my friend and pen pal. Honestly, I think you may be able to lure him over if you promise to let him have one of the copies of Diderot's Encyclopedia in his office. Having the largest university library of any public college could be a selling point for a future coach, and that prospect makes me giddy. My freshman year, one of the starters for the basketball team was getting his masters in mechanical engineering. I want a coach who's going to encourage that type of pursuit, and someone who got a Masters in History while an assistant coach sounds like the kind of person I want. We know he can coach, so that part's in the bag. If transferring the personal papers of John Milton to a vault in the Head Basketball Coach's office seals the deal, I'm willing to do it. Heck, if he wants to enroll in a Ph.D. program while he's at it, I think we'd let him. Or, if he'd like to currate a collection at the Spurlock Museum, we'd be open to it. Plus, his favorite movie is supposed to be Hoop Dreams, with the dramatic climax during the State Championships at Assembly Hall. Coach Smart, you could do that EVERY DAY. Every single day.