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Illinois in position to make a (Shaka) Smart choice

The buyout ShakSmart’s contract with VirginiCommonwealth is modest $800000. | Rick Bowmer~AP

The buyout of Shaka Smart’s contract with Virginia Commonwealth is a modest $800,000. | Rick Bowmer~AP

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Updated: April 19, 2012 8:36AM

Boom Shaka-laka!

Like an Oldies hit, Shaka Smart’s name keeps humming through an Illini Nation eagerly anticipating an exciting new leader.

The hot young Virginia ­Commonwealth coach isn’t merely the most talked-about candidate to replace Bruce Weber. No one is close.

Alabama coach Anthony Grant might be on Illinois’ radar. Like Smart, Grant would address the minority hiring concerns of some trustees and many alumni. Memphis coach Josh Pastner, Brad Stevens (Butler), Gregg Marshall (Wichita State) and Duke assistant Chris Collins also have been mentioned as possible candidates.

But front-runner Smart added another bullet to his resume on Thursday, leading No. 12 seed VCU to an upset victory of No. 5 Wichita State in its NCAA tournament opener. Already a sensation for guiding the Rams from the First Four to the Final Four a year ago, Smart has added to his luster by keeping VCU rolling despite losing four starters.

“This team has shown it’s a terrific team,’’ Smart, 35, said. “We’ve won 29 games already this year. And last year’s team only won 28. We won our conference tournament. Last year’s team lost in the conference championship game. So in a lot of ways we’ve done ­better than what last year’s team did. The only difference is, last year’s team went to the Final Four. And we’ve still got a long way to go before we can approach that.’’

VCU will try to take the next step against Indiana on Saturday. A victory against a key Illinois rival would increase the clamor for Illini athletic director Mike Thomas to get Smart.

Following the pattern he used when he hired Tim Beckman to replace Ron Zook, Thomas is remaining tight-lipped during the search. But that hasn’t stopped fans and media from a Smart watch that’s gaining momentum.

Even Smart’s blue shirt/orange tie choice on Thursday was grist for the Illini Twitter mill.

There are solid reasons to believe Smart could end up in Champaign. He’s a Midwestern native. Illinois can offer a big raise and the opportunity for sustained success. And there aren’t a lot of comparable schools looking for coaches.

A native of Oregon, Wis., near Madison, Smart was an assistant at Akron when Thomas was the AD there. His wife, writer Maya Payne, earned a master’s in ­journalism at Northwestern.

Smart signed an eight-year contract last spring worth $1.2 million a year, plus bonuses, but his ­buyout would be a modest $800,000. Thomas can be ­expected to pay in the neighborhood of $2 million a year — or more, if necessary, for the right coach. And since the Smarts ­welcomed their first child, ­daughter Zora, last September, a raise could come in handy.

At this point, no schools likely to compete with Illinois for Smart have open jobs. But that could change. And Smart, who returns the bulk of his VCU roster next season, could sit tight if he’s not sold on Illinois.

The most logical scenario at this point is that Smart will give Illinois an answer not long after the Rams’ season ends. That could be Saturday night — or it could be in New Orleans on April 2.

With an upside like that in the unpredictable world of college basketball, it’s no wonder that Illini Nation is clamoring for Smart. Whether he’ll accept the Champaign challenge, though, is not as certain.

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