Five Substantial Illini Basketball Head Coaching Candidates


(Update: second list, featuring six more names added to the list)

Having missed three straight NCAA Tournaments, with a fourth consecutive absence almost certain, Illini basketball fans have traversed a very dark journey in the John Groce era. For many, frustration became anger, which then gave way to apathy.

Unless you’re discussing the idea of replacing Groce.

For Illini basketball fans, it’s not just the main topic, it is THE topic. While it may seem a bit unprofessional at best, career ghoulish at worst, to discuss the end of the Groce era while he still has a month to go, it’s necessary.

john-groce illini basketball

Athletic Director Josh Whitman can define his legacy by this decision, as Illini basketball is the banner program of the athletic department. There are a lot of people, many who have “sources,” right now claiming to know what Whitman will do (“I heard he will call this guy”), and which direction he will go.

It’s a lot like April pre-NFL Draft talk: all noise, no signal.

Whitman hasn’t tipped his hand yet, and the actual facts won’t likely come out until this Illini basketball season is nearing its official conclusion.

In the meantime, enjoy all the “alternative facts” circulating within the Illini basketball community right now.


What About the Recruiting Class?

Illinois welcomes the top rated class in the B1G (#8 nationally according to some recruiting experts) to Champaign next season. While this is an important factor to take into account when deciding whether or not to dismiss Groce, it is secondary to finding a legitimate program builder. Everyone would obviously like all these talented kids to stay if/when Groce’s time is up, but if some of them do leave, so be it.

It’s the opportunity cost involved in doing business, as finding the right leader (who could potentially stack elite recruiting classes on top of one another) is infinitely more important. Additionally, Groce led a roster with six top 90 national recruits to a 12th place finish last season.

He has six on this roster as well, and Illinois was 13th in the league entering Saturday’s disgraceful showing against Penn State at home.


Note: here is the link to our second list of candidates, published one week later.

Tony Bennett: the Home Run Hire

Whitman’s first call should be to Charlottesville, to the Green Bay alum, Wisconsin native and son of B1G basketball royalty. His father Dick Bennett, took a moribund Badgers program and returned them to national relevance, culminating with a 2000 Final Four appearance.

Bennett has taken Thomas Jefferson’s university, a longtime afterthought in hoops, and put them at eye level in the ACC with Duke and North Carolina.

The man with the same name as the legendary crooner has made sweet music with the Cavs, becoming the only ACC coach to win 16 conference games in consecutive seasons, and one of three in ACC history to enjoy back-to-back 30-win seasons overall.

Tony Bennett Virginia

He’s 183-77 in eight seasons at UVA and 252-110 in 11 seasons overall (includes Washington State). Illini basketball could be the next logical step for the best defensive coach in the nation, who also brings an efficient motion offense.

As of Feb. 10, UVA ranks first nationally in scoring defense (54 ppg), third in turnovers per game (10), sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.51), eighth in field goal percentage (49.5%), 11th in scoring margin (+15.0), 16th in field goal percentage defense (39.1%), 19th in fouls per game (16) and 22nd in 3-point field goal percentage (39.8%).

tony bennett

Although he isn’t primarily known for recruiting, Bennett has signed a McDonald’s All-American (Kyle Guy) more recently than Groce or Bruce Weber. Player development is one of his main specialties, as he’s developed five future NBA Draft picks since 2011. Look at the current reigning ACC player of the Year, Malcolm Brogdon. Now a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks, he was recently named to the NBA Rising Stars game.

Bennett obviously won’t come cheap though- this year saw his pay rise to $2.1 million and he has a $3 million buyout. You would have to increase his salary, and offer four or five years, so you’d figure a “fully loaded” total package begins is in the $25 million+ range (not a problem at all for B1G athletic programs these days). Thus, he would perfectly complement the state of the art, just upgraded to the tune of $170 million arena though.

Plus he already has plenty of navy blue and burnt orange in his wardrobe.


Fred Hoiberg: the Primary Candidate

This is the one guy who will show up in every single Illini basketball coaching candidates article and for very good reason. Hoiberg’s time with the Chicago Bulls has been tumultuous and there’s a significant chance it could be up soon. Also, when you look at Whitman’s hire of former Chicago Bears Coach Lovie Smith, it’s only natural to start here.

However, Hoiberg is a complicated situation. As Mark Tupper, of the Decatur Herald and Review points out:

At 44, he’s the perfect age. He played 10 years in the NBA, spent time in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office and is well-connected throughout the college and pro game. And after dealing with some of the head cases he’s had to manage with the Bulls, he might welcome the comparative sanity of college basketball again…

…No one knows for certain how this will shake out, and there are complications to be resolved. The Bulls regular season, for instance, goes until April 12. And what if they’re in the playoffs? Could a deal be cut before then?

fred hoiberg iowa state

While Hoiberg would be a substantial upgrade over Groce, there are many drawbacks to making this move, in addition to the sticky situation mentioned already. The Bulls are imploding, and Hoiberg’s tenure in Chicago has made him more basketball Marc Trestman (offensive guru, very likable guy, poor with player discipline, teams are very bad defensively) than Lovie. To be fair, responsibility for the Bulls’ multitude of severe issues lay with the likes of Gar Forman, John Paxson and Rajon Rondo, as much as they do with Hoiberg.

As beloved as Hoiberg is in Ames, and as stellar as his record was at Iowa State, the Cyclones’ bigger achievements came before he arrived.

archie miller dayton

Archie Miller: the Mid-Major Call-Up

The Dayton Head Coach might be the new Shaka Smart: an annual March Madness “flavor of the month.” ADs typically overrate NCAA Tournament performances in the criteria for making hiring decisions.

It’s perfectly understandable given how college basketball is a very strange and lopsided game on the business end. How many times have you heard “I don’t care about college hoops until March” from the layperson? Hence postseason success overshadows the regular season drastically, and then assumes disproportional weight from publicity and revenue standpoints.

Miller is a lot more than that just March madness success though; he’s a program builder who has developed something special in central Ohio. As an added bonus, his wife, Morgan Miller already hates Illinois main rival Northwestern, having Tweeted vitriol directed at the Wildcats just a couple months ago.

morgan miller

Ideally though, the decision should be made before the NCAA Tournament starts. Groce was a poor man’s flavor of the month hire.

He went a very unimpressive 34-30 in the MAC during his Ohio regime, but got the Illini basketball job on the strength of a couple 2012 tournament upsets and then taking North Carolina (sans their best player in Kendall Marshall) to overtime.  Illinois needs to avoid making this error again, and thus do not make a March madness impulse buy.

Jerrance Howard: the Alum 

If you’re looking for somebody who could conceivably beat out Duke and Kentucky for 5-star recruits, it’s him. The current assistant under Bill Self at Kansas and former Illinois assistant has as much upside as possible on the recruiting side. Unfortunately, the Illini basketball alum doesn’t inspire similar levels of optimism for the Xs and Os. Whether that reputation is truly deserved or not, Howard isn’t known for in game strategy and management, and thus Illinois fans are not as excited for him as they are for some of the other candidates out there.

That’s a shame because one of the rappers in this 2002 hip-hop video is rocking a Jerrance Howard #25 Illini basketball jersey:

So much potential here as a possible recruiting tool, especially when you realize this video was clearly the inspiration for Lonely Island’s “I’m on a Boat.” Howard’s name will end on the coaching candidates list simply because he’s the only Illini basketball alum in the coaching world right remotely close to being ready for this job.

The program’s all-time leading scorer, Deon Thomas, has head coaching experience at the community college level, and a brief tenure as an assistant at UIC. Roger Powell is currently an assistant under Bryce Drew (rumored to be very interested in the Illinois job last season) at Vanderbilt; having followed him to Nashville from Valparaiso this past April.

Another strike against Howard is his 2015 arrest for marijuana possession.

illini basketball state farm center

Dan Muller: The Sleeper Choice

Illinois State is making the Missouri Valley Conference a two-bid league this year, and the Redbirds are making the Land of Lincoln a two team state (Northwestern will be the other) in the big dance. Here’s more on Muller via Rees Woodcock on Writing Illini:

Muller also has a lot of coaching experience at a big-time program as well.  He was the assistant at Vanderbilt for 12 years.

In those 12 seasons, Vanderbilt went from a joke of a program who barely made the NCAA Tournament to making the postseason six times.

illini basketball state farm center

Additionally, any basketball coaching candidates article produced in the state of Illinois, by law, must include Reggie Theus, so we are legally obligated to mention him. Be sure to click back here Monday February 20th, for the next list of Illini basketball head coaching candidates.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports, partnered with FOX Sports Engage Network. and News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, Bold and the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye publication, appears regularly as a guest on CGTN America, WGN CLTV News and KOZN 1620 The Zone

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  1. Going to cost a lot more than that to hire Bennett away. See: Paul Tudor Jones.

  2. They have to figure out how to get back into Chicago. Cuonzo Martin could be the answer there. He is not scared to get his hands dirty.

    They wanted Shaka last time, but he knew he had to get dirty to get the job done there.

    Going back to Henson and Self, they had great success there, but they had great bag men in Jimmy Collins and Billy Gillespie.

    Tracy Webster would be that guy for Cuonzo. He’s originally from there and he knows the game and the streets of Chicago as well as anyone. He did his time with Gillespie on his Kentucky staff. I have no doubt he can get dirty.

    I’ll add this…Cal is a nice place to live and to coach in if you’re wanting to avoid serious pressure. Just tough to get above the noise out here because most don’t care about collegiate sports. During the absolute peak for Cal basketball, with Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray, they got some attention but nothing close to what that team would have generated in the Midwest. I would think Cuonzo would listen to the Illini. Especially if you’re willing to work the margins, you can win there.

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