It’s a heck of a season to be neck deep in the search to find a new college basketball coach.
Missouri struck quickly by gobbling up Cuonzo Martin from Cal. A top recruiter and a sensible geographic choice given his East St. Louis background, Martin will instantly upgrade the Tigers program and personnel.
Then Indiana jumped into the pool Thursday by firing Tom Crean.
No surprise, really. Crean was 166-135 at Indiana including 16 losses this season capped by a first-round exit from the NIT. But his greater sin may have been his inability to keep in-state prospects at home.
Not just Jalen Coleman-Lands, an Indianapolis kid who became the first recruit from the state of Indiana to land in Champaign since 1984. That was just an early indicator. But this season alone four top prospects from Indiana went elsewhere.
Somewhere, Illini AD Josh Whitman is either working the phones, tiptoeing through back channels or sneaking around in a private jet, trying to connect with a coach who can bring Illinois back to national relevance at a time when other Midwest schools are orchestrating their own upgrades.
Indiana is starting late but has a major advantage. The Indiana brand, despite all Kelvin Sampson did to tarnish it, is still strong. The school and its reputation from three national championships under Bob Knight and a powerfully resilient fan base practically recruit itself.
Put the right person in the head coach’s chair and the Hoosiers will soar back to the top. That’s what the administration knew when it made the decision to cut the cord with Crean, who should at least receive credit for propping the program up in the wake of the Sampson mess.
Whitman’s challenge is to use his intellect, sincere salesmanship and a very healthy war chest of funds to offset the diminished nature of the Illinois brand.
Illini fans don’t like to hear that, but when the program has slid from national relevance for a period of 10 years, it tarnishes the power of the name.
Illinois hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament for four straight years. That’s a long time during which the nation’s top high school prospects have not heard about Illinois in conjunction with this thing we call March Madness.
Many of these recruits can’t remember the last time they saw an Illini highlight on SportsCenter. They don’t see “Illinois” anywhere in the Top 25. And when Leron Black dunks the ball, Bill Raftery is not around to yell, “Send it in, Leron!”
Whitman has to convince someone that they are uniquely qualified to buff that brand back to a sparkling shine. And he has a bulging checkbook to help make the case.
It was interesting to see an early NCAA Tournament game Thursday that paired two head coaches who may be on Whitman’s list, Tony Bennett of Virginia and Kevin Keatts of North Carolina-Wilmington.
Bennett is a defensive wizard who would give the Illini an immediate identity. Keatts is a bright 44-year-old coach who led the Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia and prepped under Rick Pitino at Louisville before getting at least a share of first place of his league title all three seasons at UNC-Wilmington.
The importance of this search suggests there’s a bigger picture to view as well.
Before too long, the Big Ten will undergo a coaching overhaul. Michigan coach John Beilein is 64. Hard to believe but Tom Izzo, the irrepressible dean of Big Ten coaches from Michigan State, is 62.
Thad Matta of Ohio State is only 49, but he walks like he’s 79. He has serious back issues that are so painful they may limit the number of years he can patrol the sideline.
Whitman’s hire is important for the present, no doubt about that. But if he gets the right man, and if the support for him is convincing, he just might hang around longer than the five years Groce was in Champaign or the three years Bill Self was there or the four years Lon Kruger was there.
Whitman loves competition. He did while playing football at Illinois and during four years in the NFL. Good thing, because the competition for a special coach, recruiter and person is fierce right now. The development at Indiana makes it even more so.