Friday night, Illinois tips off against UNLV and face Lon Kruger who coached the Illini between 1996 and 2000. If Bruce Weber’s team advances, they could face Kansas with Bill Self, who Weber replaced.
Coach Bruce Weber has no doubt that the NCAA tournament bracket his Illinois team shares with UNLV and Kansas was not done by accident.
“I think they always look for little story lines to add to the drama of March Madness – when they pop up there and there’s an opportunity, I’m sure they take it,” Weber said after seeing the draw. “I’m sure CBS appreciates it.”
The draw includes the ghosts of Illinois’ coaching past. First up on Friday in Tulsa is UNLV’s Lon Kruger, who spent four seasons at Illinois and is a man Weber doesn’t have a bad thing to say about.
“I think people respect him as a solid coach that does it right,” Weber said, noting he’d known Kruger for years. “He’s just a solid person.”
And if the ninth-seeded Illini win that game, there’s a good chance Weber would then match wits with the coach he replaced: Bill Self of top-seeded Kansas. Weber declined this week to talk about anything beyond the game with No. 8 seed UNLV.
For many Illini fans, Self remains the one who got away.
Weber is in his eighth season at Illinois, a period in which he’s taken the Illini to the NCAAs six times, including a trip to the 2005 final, where they lost to North Carolina.
But the two misses have come in the past three seasons. And since the 2005 final, Illinois has won only one game in the tournament.
Athletic director Ron Guenther has said Weber’s job is safe. But his results since 2005, this year’s 19-13 record and the memories of Kruger and Self linger.
Kruger coached the Illini for four seasons, leaving to become head coach of the Atlanta Hawks after the 1999-2000 season. His Illini teams went to the NCAA tournament three times in four years, won a Big Ten title in 1997-98 and finished in the Top 25 three times.
He took over at UNLV in 2004, bringing stability and respectability – along with wins – to a program that had been up and down and in and out of trouble with the NCAA since the glory days of Jerry Tarkanian. Kruger has coached four of his seven teams to the NCAAs, including four of the past five.
“Any time as a coach they’re hopefully looking for someone with integrity anywhere,” Kruger said, deflecting questions this week about the degree to which his job at UNLV had been to repair its basketball reputation. “(Wife) Barb and I love living here; the people are great and they love their basketball.”
What Kruger wouldn’t say, though, Weber did.
“They needed somebody who’s been very solid in the profession, and he’s found a nice niche out there,” the Illini coach said.
Kruger said playing Illinois would give he and his wife a chance to see old friends and renew acquaintances. He won’t be quite the same guy fans in Champaign remember.
For one, he’s shed the turtleneck sweaters and sport coats that marked his Illini days for suits, dress shirts and ties. He’s tanner now, too, thanks to the Nevada sun.
And Kruger’s team is a different type than the ones Illini fans saw, largely because of the different players he’s been able to recruit to UNLV.
“We’re more full-court pressure, a little more trap than the man defenses he used playing with bigger players in the Big Ten,” Kruger said. “We’re not a big team, but we’re probably pretty active.”
While Illinois fans remember Kruger fondly, Self remains something else altogether.
As news broke that he was considering leaving for Kansas in 2003, students wrote giant love notes in colored chalk on his driveway and lined up outside a sports banquet with signs bearing pleas to stay and say no to Kansas.
“Look what happened to Dorothy,” one student pleaded on a piece of pastel poster board.
Weber, tired of being reminded that he wasn’t Self, told reporters in December 2003 that he’d dressed all in black before one game and told his players – players Self recruited – that it was a mock funeral for his predecessor.
“It’s over. There’s no more comparing. He’s gone,” Weber said at the time.
While he wouldn’t talk this week about Self or Kansas – which faces 16th-seeded Boston University in its opening game – some of Weber’s players said they were aware of the history.
“Everybody’s going to be talking about Kansas and Illinois and all this stuff, but our focus right now is UNLV,” senior center Mike Tisdale said. “We’re going to do what we can to win one for our coach.”