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Sources say Illinois pursuing Shaka Smart to be its basketball coach

VirginiCommonwealth coach ShakSmart gestures from bench during first half an NCAA men's college basketball tournament second-round game against WichitState PortlOre.

Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart gestures from the bench during the first half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament second-round game against Wichita State in Portland, Ore., Thursday, March 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

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Updated: April 21, 2012 8:11AM

Convinced he needs to land Shaka Smart, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas is making a no-holds-barred run at the Virginia Commonwealth coach, a source close to the talks said Monday.

Smart has shown solid interest, and money won’t be a stumbling block, said the source, who has
spoken with two people involved in the talks.

‘‘They’re going to make damn sure they don’t let him get away,’’ the source said.

But another source close to the Smart camp said it is far from a done deal. Smart, who wasn’t interested in major-conference jobs at North Carolina State and Maryland a year ago, intends to consider his situation carefully.

With all but one of his top players returning next season, he’s under no pressure to leave VCU and Richmond, a city he and his wife adore.

‘‘He wants to make sure he doesn’t pull a Dan Monson,’’ the source said, referring to the successful Gonzaga coach who floundered at Minnesota. ‘‘He doesn’t want to take a big-name job and wind up saying, ‘What did I do here?’ He can probably be gotten, but he’s going to need to be convinced.’’

One big issue is getting a handle on Chicago recruiting. While there are many talented players there, it’s complicated recruiting turf because of players’ entourages, academic realities and its tradition of being an open city that’s recruited by schools near and far.

Smart wants to make sure he assesses that situation carefully, the source said, and doesn’t simply accept the view that Chicago makes Illinois a sleeping giant.

As the hottest up-and-coming coach in the country, Smart — who will be 35 on April 8 — can afford to be circumspect. And as a candidate who addresses concerns that Illinois hasn’t had a minority head coach in men’s basketball or football, he’s even more attractive.

Even though Thomas made a serious run at Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, who wound up going to Texas A&M, two of Illinois’ trustees declined to sign off on new football coach Tim Beckman’s contract. Many Illinois alums of all backgrounds have voiced their interest in leaving Purdue and Nebraska as the only Big Ten schools that haven’t had a minority head coach in football or men’s basketball.

After taking VCU from the First Four to the Final Four last season, Smart signed an eight-year contract last spring worth about $1.21 million a year. The buyout on that deal would be $800,000 this year for Smart, who guided the Rams to 29 victories and the round of 32 this season despite losing four starters.

The buyout wouldn’t pose a problem for Thomas, who has taken on more than $7 million in buyouts for departed coaches Ron Zook, Jolette Law and Bruce Weber since being hired in August.

The buyouts are covered by the athletic department’s budget, with no state funds and no individual booster contributions involved. For Thomas, who’s embarking on a renovation of Assembly Hall, it’s a business decision as much as anything else.

‘‘I think Shaka is very pleased with where the contract is right now,’’ VCU athletic director Norwood Teague told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in its Sunday editions. ‘‘We’ll talk at the end of the year if anything needs to be changed.’’

It wouldn’t be surprising, though, if Illinois offered Smart a multiyear deal worth $2.5 million annually, a number that would force him to give Illinois serious thought.

Smart, who was an assistant at Akron when Thomas was the Zips’ athletic director, would be an
attractive candidate pretty much anywhere, but Illinois is regarded as the best coaching position that’s open. It’s thought Northwestern would be interested in Smart if its job became open.

One question is Smart’s thoughts about Illinois being a program where a coach can have sustained success at the highest level. Several national media have said Illinois is among the top 10 programs in the country.

Smart, a native of Oregon, Wis., a small town near Madison, also would be returning to his Midwestern roots. His wife, writer Maya Payne, earned a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern. Their first child, daughter Zora, was born in September.

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