- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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The state of Illinois struggled mightily in the college basketball universe this season. Come March Madness, the state will be lucky to have more than one team in the NCAA or NIT tournaments.
For Chicago State, DePaul and UIC, this was expected. They were programs that hired new coaches before the season and are rebuilding.
For a majority of the other in-state programs, their struggles aren't as easy to explain. Northern Illinois coach Ricardo Patton, Southern Illinois' Chris Lowery, Bradley's Jim Les, Eastern Illinois' Mike Miller, Loyola's Jim Whitesell, Northwestern's Bill Carmody and Illinois' Bruce Weber have fewer legitimate excuses for their woes during the 2010-11 campaign, and blame has to fall on their shoulders.
Not that any of these coaches will be fired after this season, and some should be more worried than others, but all of them should be concerned at some level about their job security in the near future.
The following are listed by job security. Patton is the most likely to be replaced, and Weber is the least likely.
Northern Illinois coach Ricardo Patton, 4th season, 34-81 overall, 18-43 MAC
Case for: Patton doesn't have a whole lot going for him. There was a stretch last season when Northern Illinois won six a row and had an 8-8 record. Players have abandoned him and the program, which hasn't helped. Patton's biggest achievement was convincing Xavier Silas to come to Northern Illinois after transferring from Colorado. Silas has been one of the nation's leading scorers over the last two years.
Case against: The Huskies' record nor their recruiting has improved since Patton arrived, and there's no proof it'll get better if he's kept around. Northern Illinois might have actually been okay this season in a weak MAC if four of Patton's top players hadn't decided to leave the program. Sean Kowal, Jake Anderson, Mike DiNunno and Michael Fakuade departed after last season for a variety of reasons, including differences with Patton. This season has been rough for Northern Illinois. It is 8-19 overall and 4-10 in the MAC.
Job prospects:There has been speculation that it's already a done deal that Patton will be replaced after this season despite having one year left on his contract. The next coach would be Northern Illinois athletic director Jeff Compher's first men's basketball hire. Patton was hired by former AD Jim Phillips.
Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery, 7th season, 136-92 overall, 72-54 Missouri Valley
Case for: It wasn't too long ago that Southern Illinois was one of the premier mid-major programs in the country under Lowery. From 2004 to '07, the Salukis compiled a 78-26 overall record and reached three NCAA tournaments, including a Sweet 16 run in 2007. Shortly after his three-year run, Lowery signed a seven-year extension at $750,000 per season. Lowery was on top of the college coaching world. He even recruited a top-30 nationally ranked class in 2008, which included Illinois Mr. Basketball Kevin Dillard.
Case against: Southern Illinois and Lowery have fallen fast and fallen hard. The Salukis haven't reached the NCAA tournament since 2007 and are about to endure their third consecutive losing season. Lowery had pushed the message that the current season would be Southern Illinois' return to prominence, but it's been nowhere near. Southern Illinois is 12-18 overall and 5-13 in an average Missouri Valley. Lowery also isn't bringing in the same talent as he was before and has been losing its past star recruits. All four players in Lowery's nationally ranked 2008 recruiting class are no longer in the program, and Lowery has been forced to grab more and more players from the junior college ranks.
Job prospects:There's a lot of pressure on Southern Illinois to replace Lowery. It doesn't appear he'll be able to right the ship. Money is the only reason why he may make it through another season at Southern Illinois. He will need to be bought out of the remaining three years of his contract.
Bradley coach Jim Les, 9th season, 153-139 overall, 74-84 Missouri Valley
Case for: Les was highly regarded not too long ago. He coached Bradley to a surprise run to the Sweet 16 during the 2005-'06 season and followed it up with a NIT appearance. Bradley has also been to two other postseason tournaments, the College Basketball Invitational and CollegeInsider.com tournament. The Braves have won 20-plus games in four of his nine seasons and have been competitive on the recruiting trail. Bradley was expected to be among the conference contenders this season, but took a major hit when it lost returning starters Taylor Brown (heart condition) and Sam Maniscalco (ankle) for the season in November.
Case against: Bradley hasn't been able to recapture the magic of 2005-06. Bradley has one of the strongest followings in the state, drawing 9,000-plus fans consistently for home games, and expectations haven't been met in the past few years. The Braves haven't reached the NCAA tournament since 2006 and have lost 15 or more games the past four seasons. Injuries did plague Bradley this season, but it still underachieved. Heading into this week's conference tournament, the Braves have gone 11-19 overall and finished last in the Missouri Valley with a 4-14 record. Les' teams also haven't fared well in the conference in his nine seasons. They've never finished better than fourth.
Job prospects:Fans are pushing for Bradley to remove Les after this season. He does have time remaining on his contract, and injuries did legitimately hold the Braves down this season, but there's a good chance he will be gone. If Les does survive the chopping block, it will be mandatory he succeeds next year.
Eastern Illinois coach Mike Miller, 6th season, 63-113 overall, 39-73 Ohio Valley
Case for: A year ago, Miller coached Eastern Illinois to 19 wins, the third most in the school's Div. I history. The Panthers also won eight consecutive games in February of last season and reached the conference tournament's semifinals. Eastern Illinois had a rocky season this year, but will have a number of its top players returning next season and could rebound.
Case against: The Panthers have had one winning season under Miller in six years. Coming off last year's stellar season, Eastern Illinois went 9-20 overall and 4-14 in the conference this season. Eastern Illinois has traditionally had difficultly winning on a regular basis, but it's hard to imagine Miller drastically improving after six seasons there.
Job prospects:Miller would need to be bought out of his contract. He was previously given a two-year extension that carries through the end of next season. He could very well be kept around for at least one more year.
Loyola coach Jim Whitesell, 7th season, 109-106 overall, 50-70 Horizon League
Case for: Whitesell has been Loyola's best coach since Gene Sullivan in the 1980's. Whitesell's 2006-07 team was the first to win 20 games since 1985. Loyola has also been competitive in all of Whitesell's seven seasons. This will be the seventh consecutive year Loyola will have 12 or more wins. Loyola has been strong out of the gates as well. The Ramblers opened last season with an 11-2 record, which was the program's best start since 1965-66, and this season with an 8-2 mark. They nearly upset Butler the past two years and had Kansas State on the ropes this season. He has also brought in a number of quality recruits from throughout the Midwest, especially Wisconsin.
Case against: There's a concern the Rambers' best days under Whitesell are behind them. This will be the first season the Ramblers are above .500 since 2006-2007, and they've scraped by to get there this season. They're 16-14 entering the Horizon League tournament. Loyola will endure its fourth consecutive season with a losing conference record. It has gone 24-48 in the Horizon League in the past four years. Whitesell has brought in some talented players in the Midwest, but he's failed in the Chicago area. Only two players on the current roster are from Illinois, and both Jon Gac (Mount Carmel) and Geoff McCammon (Conant) were projects coming out of high school.
Job prospects:Whitesell has at least one more season remaining on his contract. Loyola recently hired a new athletic director, M. Grace Calhoun, and she'll have to decide if it's better to start fresh or allow Whitesell another year.
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, 11th season, 156-175 overall, 57-126 Big Ten
Case for: Carmody has elevated Northwestern's program to places it hasn't been before, and the Wildcats are no longer a running joke in the Big Ten. This season will be their fourth winning one under Carmody. A season ago, they won a school-record 20 games. They've also reached the NIT in consecutive seasons for the first time. Northwestern has been ranked and has beaten ranked teams. Carmody has also brought in a higher level of recruit and players from throughout the country. Even with Michael Thompson graduating after this season, Northwestern will return a bulk of its players, including leading scorer John Shurna, next season.
Case against: While Carmody has had success, he still has failed to get Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament. This was supposed to be the season Northwestern finally achieved that, but it won't happen now unless it wins the Big Ten tournament. Northwestern is currently 16-12 overall and 6-11 in conference. The Wildcats have also continued to struggle in the Big Ten. Their best conference record under Carmody was 8-8 in 2003-2004. The question is whether Carmody has reached his peak. It might also be unrealistic to expect more from any basketball coach at Northwestern. Unlike the football program, the basketball program has never proven it can consistently compete in the Big Ten.
Job prospects:Carmody signed a two-year extension before this season. It's unlikely athletic director Jim Phillips would buy him out so quickly, but it's not unheard of.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber, 8th season, 191-83, 82-52
Case for: Weber has won more than any of the state's coaches. He has coached Illinois to five NCAA tournaments in his previous seven seasons, and his team is on the verge of earning another NCAA tournament invitation this season. The Illini have been to the national championship game and to a Sweet 16. They've also been consistently near the top of the Big Ten. They've won 10 or more conference games in five of Weber's seasons. After struggling to recruit his first few years at Illinois, which was previously the biggest knock on him, Weber has turned that around. His last three classes have been ranked nationally, and he has convinced a lot of the state's top talent, especially McDonald's All-American Jereme Richmond, to stay home. He signed four players from Chicago in his Class of 2011.
Case against: Expectations are higher at Illinois than anywhere else in the state, and Weber's Illinois teams have failed to meet those expectations as of late. He is now six years removed from the national championship game. The Illini have been to one NCAA tournament in the past three seasons and will likely be on the bubble again this season. Illinois was thought to be a Big Ten contender and a threat in the NCAA tournament this year, but it has struggled much like it did last year and is currently 18-11 overall and 8-8 in the Big Ten. Illinois also has lost to in-state foes Bradley and UIC in the past two years. This year's recruiting class is nationally ranked, but out-of-state programs snatched up McDonald's All-Americans Wayne Blackshear (Louisville) and Anthony Davis (Kentucky).
Job prospects:Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther recently threw his support behind Weber. Unless Illinois makes the NCAA tournament and has some improbable run in it, next season will likely be a make-or-break one for Weber. He needs to have more than a so-so season.