Breaking down 10 potential candidates to be Illinois State’s new basketball coach

The following short list of 10 potential candidates for the Illinois State job is one with some very realistic targets and some that may be a reach but worth talking about.

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Roger Powell Jr. (left, with Drew Timme) has been an assistant coach at Gonzaga under Mark Few for two seasons.

Roger Powell Jr. (left, with Drew Timme) has been an assistant coach at Gonzaga under Mark Few for two seasons.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Illinois State basketball hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 24 years.

Every single Missouri Valley Conference school has gone to the NCAA Tournament since the last time the Redbirds did so in 1998. That’s pretty remarkable since the ISU job has been considered one of the very best in the conference.

Recently fired coach Dan Muller came close. His 2016-17 team won 28 games and ran through the MVC with a league record of 17-1. But the NCAA Tournament committee popped ISU’s bubble that year and left them on the outside looking in.

Former coach Tim Jankovich also came very close. Multiple times, in fact.

Illinois State lost to Drake, the No. 20 ranked team in the country at the time, in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in 2008.

Illinois State was one game away from a NCAA Tournament berth in 2009, losing in overtime to Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title game.

The Redbirds lost in the championship game of the MVC Tournament — once again in a heartbreaking overtime loss — to Creighton and star Doug McDermott in 2012.

Jankovich really had the program humming along during his five-year tenure. ISU had win totals of 25, 24, 22 and 21 in four of the five years and a team that was loaded with young, returning talent when he departed for SMU to be Larry Brown’s assistant while also being named the head-coach-in-waiting.

Despite the nearly quarter century without a single NCAA Tournament appearance, this is a program in the college basketball industry that is universally considered to be one of the better mid-major jobs in the country. That’s why Kyle Brennan, a fresh and relatively new face to ISU athletics, is in a great spot.

Hired in December of 2020 as the Director of Athletics, Brennan will not have a hard time compiling a list of top-notch candidates. This will be a coveted mid-major job with inquiries from potential candidates he didn’t dream would be interested.

But any good athletic director already has at least a short list of candidates he seeks to interview and take time with in the process. The early termination of Muller, who was fired with five games remaining in the regular season and the still-to-be-played conference tournament, gives Brennan even more time.

But that list needs to include someone who can target and recruit the state of Illinois, along with the recruiting breadbasket surrounding the state. The St. Louis and Indianapolis metropolitan areas are less than a three-hour drive from campus.

This job, with the entire Chicago area an easy two-hour drive to the Normal campus and centrally located to the other parts of the state, needs a coach to recruit this state.

The last ISU NCAA Tournament team was led by Rico Hill of Brother Rice. Big man Leroy Watkins was from Chicago Corliss and guard Kyle Cartmill from Quincy.

The following short list of 10 potential candidates for the Illinois State job is one with some very realistic targets and some that may be a reach but worth talking about.

Roger Powell Jr., Gonzaga assistant

A red-hot assistant coach who happens to be on the staff of a college basketball giant and the No. 1 ranked team in the country. When you’re a part of one of the most enviable college basketball jobs and cultures in the country, it’s only a matter of time.

Powell will be a head coach sooner than later and will likely be able to be a bit choosy among mid-major level jobs. For Powell, it’s more of a question of where as when. He will only take a job he really wants and finds attractive. And coming home to Illinois should do the trick.

This appears to be an obvious and ideal fit in many ways and one that would energize the fan base, the program and likely Powell himself.

In addition to learning and growing as a coach under coaching icon Mark Few at Gonzaga, he worked at both Valparaiso and Vanderbilt for a number of years for Bryce Drew.

Powell is a big name and respected figure locally having starred at Joliet in high school and then at Illinois as a college player. He was an integral part of the famed Fighting Illini 2005 Final Four team.

The always approachable Powell knows the state extremely well and has deep relationships in Illinois. Powell just recently led the charge in signing Glenbard West’s Braden Huff, arguably the state’s top prospect.

And he’s a legacy as Powell’s father, Roger Powell Sr., starred at Illinois State in the 1970s, averaging over 19 points a game as a senior for the Redbirds.

Illinois State became the first Division I basketball program in the country to hire a Black head coach when it hired Will Robinson in 1970. The program hasn’t hired a minority candidate since.

Aside from head coaching experience, there is no question the polished Powell checks off a ton of boxes for Illinois State and Brennan.

Steve Prohm, former Iowa State head coach

This would be a big name and proven coach with a whole bunch of high-level winning success and experience.

Prohm will undoubtedly be back in coaching at some point as the 47-year-old will be an intriguing candidate for a lot of athletic directors. Prohm might be enticed to get back into coaching at the mid-major level after experiencing both the highs and lows of a high-major job.

Prohm took three Iowa State teams to the NCAA Tournament before being let go a year ago after the Cyclones finished 2-22 overall and 0-18 in the Big 12. But he led Iowa State to tournament appearances in 2016, 2017 and 2019 with the 2016 team reaching the Sweet Sixteen.

Plus, he won big at Murray State, a school that’s joining the Missouri Valley Conference, before taking the Iowa State job. In four seasons at Murray State he went 104-29 and reached two NCAA Tournaments.

Prohm, though, was born, raised and went to school in Georgia and eventually graduated from Alabama, so he has more Southern roots and comfort there than he would appear to have in the Midwest.

Scott Nagy, Wright State

All the veteran coach has done in his career is win. He would be someone Illinois State has never hired before — a highly-successful sitting head coach.

Between his years at South Dakota State and Wright State, Nagy has won six conference championships and taken four teams to the NCAA Tournament since 2012. Since that 2012 season Nagy has averaged 23 wins a season.

Nagy is familiar with the state. In addition to always recruiting Illinois throughout his career, he grew up in Champaign, graduated from Centennial and is the son of Dick Nagy, a former assistant for Illinois coach Lou Henson.

The 55-year-old Nagy would bring a ton of experience, a lot of substance and a winning history to the program. The Missouri Valley Conference would be a step up from the Horizon League as Nagy finishes up his sixth season at Wright State following 21 years at South Dakota State.

Dennis Gates, Cleveland State

This might be unrealistic and may not make a whole lot of sense— for both sides — considering Cleveland State is atop the Horizon League and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament would likely mean Gates would be a hot commodity among high-major programs.

Gates has already been looked at and interviewed at that level in the last coaching hiring cycle a year ago. His success as a head coach, coupled with an extensive history as a high-major assistant coach, makes him a prime high-major head coaching candidate.

But there are local ties and he’s a name to at least explore no matter how big of a reach it would be to nab Gates.

Gates was born and raised in Chicago and played at Young where he won a state championship in 1998. He was an assistant coach briefly at Northern Illinois. So there are plenty of natural connections to the state.

After taking Cleveland State to the NCAA Tournament last season in what was a pretty remarkable turnaround of a program, Gates has been a hot name since in the coaching rumor mill and will continue to be.

Ryan Pedon, Ohio State assistant

One of the highly respected assistant coaches in the country. Pedon has been on the cusp of getting a head coaching job in recent years, but he’s been patiently waiting for the right job. But it’s coming sooner than later.

He’s completing his fifth season under Chris Holtman at Ohio State. The Buckeyes are on pace for a fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in those five years. He was also a part of two NCAA Tournament teams while at Butler.

Pedon has Midwest ties. The Ohio native has been an assistant at Miami (Ohio), Toledo and Butler while also serving on John Groce’s staff at Illinois as special assistant to the head coach.

Sharp, organized and a relationship-based assistant coach, he has recruited the state over the years and was instrumental in landing current Ohio State star EJ Liddell from Belleville West. He can easily sell his ability to build connections throughout the Midwest.

Pedon is ready to run his own show at the mid-major level.

Saddi Washington, Michigan assistant

A highly thought of assistant who has now coached under both John Beilein and Juwan Howard while at Michigan. He’s been in Ann Arbor for six seasons following a long run as an assistant coach at Oakland.

While at Michigan he’s been a part of a ton of high-level success, including multiple Big Ten championships, 30-win seasons and a trip to the national championship game in 2018.

A Michigan native who played at Western Michigan, the veteran assistant coach has drawn considerable head coaching interest from low-major and mid-major programs in recent years. But he’s been content at Michigan as he waits for the right time and best opportunity.

Washington remains an attractive candidate and appears to be in the sweet spot for breaking in as a head coach. He will surely be in the mix once again for Mid-American Conference jobs, ones that open during this coaching carousel. But Illinois State would be a better, more high-profile job than any potential MAC opening this spring.

Dean Oliver, Wisconsin assistant

The current Wisconsin assistant coach spent three years at Illinois State working for Dan Muller from 2014-17. Oliver was on the staff when the Redbirds won 28 games and went 17-1 in the MVC.

Oliver has been part of a Wisconsin program, which is currently ranked among the top 13 in the country, that has had a ton of success since his arrival in 2017. In those first four seasons he was a part of two NCAA Tournament teams — a third if not for the Covid cancellation of the tournament — including the 2019-20 team that shared a Big Ten title.

Oliver, who is from Iowa and played for the Hawkeyes, has learned the traits of being part of an established high-level program with the Badgers. He’s had his hands on all aspects of Wisconsin’s success over the past five years.

Brad Korn, Southeast Missouri State head coach

A long-shot candidate, indeed, but a quick study and one can see he’s a head coach on the rise when you pay close attention. And he’s one worth noting with this job because of his familiarity with the state.

The Illinois native has done some impressive work in just two years as head coach at what has been a moribund college basketball program. Last year, his first season as head coach, SEMO was picked 12th in the Ohio Valley Conference and they finished seventh.

This season they are the No. 4 seed in the OVC Tournament — the best finish for the program in 22 years. Just this past weekend SEMO lost to Murray State, the No. 19 ranked team in the country, 70-68.

Korn, who played at Southern Illinois and helped the Salukis to three NCAA Tournaments, spent five years at Kansas State under Bruce Weber. He also has a ton of familiarity with the Missouri Valley Conference after spending six years as an assistant at SIU and four more at Missouri State.

Over the course of his career Korn, who checks off boxes in player development as well, has recruited the state of Illinois well. He has two Chicago area products, Bolingbrook’s Nana Akenten and Kenwood’s Manny Patterson, on the roster this year. While at Kansas State he landed Curie’s DaJuan Gordon, the Sun-Times Player of the Year in 2019.

Kyle Green, Iowa State assistant

A longtime college coach at various levels, Green has been in the Midwest and recruiting the state of Illinois throughout his entire career.

Prior to joining TJ Otzelberger’s staff at Iowa State, where the Cyclones have been one of the biggest surprises in the country this season, the bulk of Green’s coaching career was spent in the Missouri Valley Conference.

He was an assistant at Northern Iowa for 16 seasons where his ubiquitous impact on the program and its success was clearly evident. In his time there he was a part of two MVC regular-season championships and four NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet Sixteen run in 2010.

The well-liked Green also has head coaching experience at the Division III and Division II levels, including two years at Lewis University in the Chicago area.

Green has been involved in some recent coaching searches and his move to the high-major level only helps boost his stock as a head coach candidate.

Eric Henderson, South Dakota State head coach

This would be a relatively quick climb for Henderson.

But after winning a third straight Summit League regular season title, Henderson is showing legitimacy as a young, up-and-coming head coach. It’s not a long résumé but it’s a blossoming one that is growing fast.

He took over for TJ Otzelberger in 2019 and has done nothing but win. He went 38-19 in his first two seasons, which led to a contract extension last summer. Now Henderson has led the Jackrabbits to a 27-4 record this season and a perfect 18-0 mark in league play.

But he’s been on the plains his entire career, starting with a playing career at Wayne State in Nebraska. He was an assistant at North Dakota State and South Dakota State for a combined five years before taking over as head coach.

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