The search for a basketball coach at the University of Utah has been narrowed to three prime candidates, and a new coach could be named as early as Thursday, the Deseret News has learned.

Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill confirmed Monday night that the list of candidates for the open basketball coaching position at the university had been pared to three, although he would not say who they were.But according to various sources, the top candidates are believed to be Ball State Coach Rick Majerus, St. Mary's Coach Lynn Nance and Southwest Missouri State Coach Charlie Spoonhour.

"It's the old cliche - I can neither confirm nor deny," said Hill, who has been keeping secretive about the selection process since firing Lynn Archibald two weeks ago.

The top candidate appears to be Majerus, who led Ball State to the best regular-season record (28-2) in the country this year. The Cardinals beat Pittsburgh in the first round of the NCAAs before bowing to Illinois.

According to a source in Indiana, the 39-year-old Majerus is a "hot commodity right now" who is "on everybody's list." The source said Majerus is looking seriously at the Utah job along with about four others. "If people contact him he's going to listen." There's also a chance he will decide to stay in Muncie since nearly everyone on his team is back next year.

Majerus was the head coach at Marquette for three years before joining Don Nelson with the Milwaukee Bucks. He has compiled a 99-52 record in five years as a collegiate coach.

The 44-year-old Nance led St. Mary's to a 25-5 record this year. The Gaels were eliminated by Clemson in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In three years at St. Mary's, Nance has gone 61-27. Before coming to St. Mary's, Nance was an assistant to Boyd Grant at Fresno State, was the head coach for five years at Central Missouri State, where his team won the Division II national championship, and was the head coach at Iowa State for four years. His 12-year record as a head coach is 216-120.

When contacted Monday night, Nance said of Utah, "I have some interest in the job. It's the type of position where you have the opportunity to be a Top 20 or Top 10 program. Whoever gets that job will be very fortunate."

Nance is also a strong candidate for the job at Washington, which was vacated when Andy Russo resigned under pressure last week. Nance is a graduate of Washington and a former assistant coach there. He has indicated that he would like to stay in the West, and he didn't rule out the possibility of staying at St. Mary's.

Spoonhour, 50, turned down the job at Wyoming two years ago that Benny Dees later snatched up. According to Southwest Missouri State sports information director Mark Stillwell, Spoonhour has not been contacted by anyone in Utah. However, local sources say Spoonhour has indeed talked with Utah people about the job here. In six years, Spoonhour has amassed an impressive 130-54 record.

"We're trying to find someone who is a good matchup with us," said Hill, who is conferring with U. President Chase Peterson and Vice President Ted Capener in the selection process. Hill denied that he is having trouble coming up with suitable candidates.

"There are plenty of people who want to be involved with us," he said.

Apparently at least one person has turned down the job. Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery, who formerly coached at Montana, was reportedly offered the job last week.

Hill will be leaving Friday for the Final Four in Seattle, and he didn't rule out the possibility of naming a coach before then. In fact, one source said, "I know Chris would like to get it done before he goes to the Final Four."

That will depend on the response of the candidates on Hill's short list. If they all turn down the job, the selection process could drag on past the April 12 national letter of intent signing date.