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Illinois still top job despite Smart rejection

The quality of the Illinois job doesn’t change because Shaka Smart doesn’t want it.

It may not have not been the right fit for Smart, who also might be waiting for a more high-profiled position to open, but Illinois remains to be a top-15 job with or without him.

Unfortunately for Illinois, Smart and even Butler’s Brad Stevens can pass on the Illini’s offer and still end up with a better job. They’ve placed themselves into that elite pool of coaches with their success and proven charisma over the past few seasons. They will be top candidates for jobs such as Connecticut or Syracuse if they become available in the next few years.

There are only about 14 jobs which have more upside than Illinois’ opening. Illinois might sit behind Arizona, Connecticut, Duke, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, North Carolina, Ohio State, Syracuse, Texas and UCLA in its value as a program, but it's ahead of many others. An argument could be made that programs such as Kansas State, Missouri and Purdue are better than Illinois, but none of them have been to a Final Four in the past 40 years.

Smart and Stevens can wait for one of those 14 premier jobs, but not many other coaches can. Most of the current coaches in those 14 programs aren’t leaving anytime soon. Schools such as Duke and Kansas don’t often have vacancies.

While it seems like Illinois put all of its eggs in one basket and Smart crushed them all with his refusal, this shouldn’t deter the Illini from still getting a qualified coach who can return them to prominence. Winning at Illinois may not be as easy as winning at North Carolina, but it should be an attractive position. The program has been to two Final Fours since 1989, won under multiple coaches and its recruiting base of Chicago and the state of Illinois produces a high level of talent.

Lou Henson won at Illinois. So did Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber. The next coach should be able to as well.

Just because Smart said no, it doesn’t devalue the position. The right coach can compete for a national championship at Illinois.

That should be an easy sell to the next target of Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.