Illinois takes on UNLV Friday night beginning around 8:20 pm in Tulsa. The Illini are seeking to finish their season on a positive note and win the UI's first NCAA Tournament game since 2006. To do so, they must confront an athletic team coached by Lon Kruger, who's time at Illinois included a Big 10 championship.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber has known Kruger for a long time.
"I've always respected him. He's been very involved with NABC, USA basketball and Coaches vs. Cancer, so he does more than just the coaching. He does a good job, and people have always respected him as a solid coach that does it right. He's been good for our profession.
"I think Lon had a lot to do with our practice facility. We did something before anyone else in the country. Coach (Lou) Henson got Orange Krush going, and I think Lon brought that up to a new level. He did a very solid job of maintaining the tradition of Illinois basketball."
Besides his work on the Ubben indoor practice facility, Kruger was instrumental in helping the Orange Krush student support group implement a plan to give back to the Illinois athletic department and Champaign-Urbana community by soliciting pledges for three-point shots made by Illini teams.
"Yes we were, along with Ron Guenther," Kruger remembers. "We sat down and thought about it. Student involvement was key of course. Ron Guenther was the driving force behind it."
Kruger has similar positive feelings for Weber.
"I've known Bruce for a long time. More in the recruiting, watching his teams play, how organized they are, a good motion offense. I appreciate the job he does."
Both coaches are quick to praise their opponents as well.
"We have a tough challenge," Weber notes. "They've played good basketball all year. We're gonna have to play one of our top games to have a chance to advance."
"Very tough first round draw," Kruger responds. "I've instructed our players on the tradition of Illinois basketball, the talent that they have. Coach Weber does a great job. They prepare well and play hard. We look forward to this first round matchup."
Kruger left Illinois for the Atlanta Hawks after just four years, but he accumulated an overall record of 81-48 including an improbable Big 10 Championship in 1997-98 as five unheralded seniors displayed fabulous team chemistry. His replacement Bill Self, a likely second round opponent for the winner of this game, inherited a talented group of youngsters who continued winning trends.
That group included Peorians Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and Frank Williams plus Brian Cook, Corey Bradford, Robert Archibald, Lucas Johnson, Damir Krupalija and Sean Harrington. Kruger remembers it well.
"We loved our time in Champaign, and Ron Guenther is a terrific athletic director. We will always appreciate that relationship and all he did for us. We left a good young group. The Peoria guys came over, and that led to the recruiting of a lot better guys."
Getting back to the game itself, Weber says UNLV presents a major challenge for the Illini.
"There's no doubt the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is a talented team with good quickness. Lon's teams have always been good on the defensive end since he was here and at different places. They really pressure and pick you up full court and make you bring the ball up against pressure pretty much the entire game. They use their depth and athleticism to wear you down.
"Offensively, they are a team that can get to the basket. They're very good in transition, they're very good on dribble-drives. We're gonna have to do a good job on getting back in transition and then keeping them out of the paint."
Senior Tre'Von Willis (6'-4", 195) leads the Runnin' Rebels with 13.5 points a game and has handed out 100 assists. Junior Chace Stanback (6'-8", 210) is close behind at 13 points a game and leads the team with 6 rebounds each outing. Junior Oscar Bellfield (6'-2", 185) is also in double figures with 11 points a game. He leads the team with 121 assists.
UNLV uses at least six other complimentary players to maintain defensive pressure including sophomore Anthony Marshall (6'-3", 200), sophomore Quintrell Thomas (6'-8", 245), senior Derrick Jasper (6'-6", 215), sophomore Justin Hawkins (6'-3", 190), freshman Carlos Lopez (6'-11", 215) and junior Brice Massamba ((6'-10", 240).
"Willis is their go-to guy," Weber reveals. "He can make the plays and shots. Stanback is a guy that can really shoot the ball from the perimeter. He is tough to guard for our big guys.
"Those are their two top guys, although they have other guys who can make shots, make plays. Marshall is a very good athlete.
"We had a relationship with Derrick Jasper when we were recruiting him out of high school. He went to Kentucky, had knee surgery and has transformed from being a straight-up point guard to being a point forward. He gives them a different look."
Kruger explains he has fit together a group that includes several transfers from top programs.
"We have some transfers, most of which we recruited out of high school. They went to another school, and we got them back second time around. They've fit in well. Willis is a senior, Jasper is a senior, and we recruited both of them in high school. They've both been productive in different ways. We've got transfers and young guys that have been here 3 to 4 years."
Weber says UNLV's defense reminds him of a Big 10 school.
"To me, Purdue would be the one that comes to mind because of their ball pressure and how they extend their defense. They're physical. Their toughness is similar to Purdue. They don't have a JaJuan Johnson or E'Twaun Moore, but they have more of a balanced offense than Purdue."
Offensively, the Runnin' Rebels utilize a style the Illini historically have found difficult to defend.
"Offensively, they are a team that can get to the basket. They're very good in transition, they're very good on dribble-drives. We're gonna have to do a good job on getting back in transition and then keeping them out of the paint.
"They iso you, they do a lot of dribble-drives. He has athletic guys who can take people off the dribble. We're gonna have to do a good job with dribble containment."
Illini senior Mike Tisdale knows this could be his last game with a loss. He won't take UNLV lightly.
"They're a good team, and they have a good coach. They've won some games, so we've got to be ready to play. They're quick, they're athletic. It won't be an easy game, but we'll give it everything we've got.
"We struggled in some games, but hopefully now we can move forward. It's do or die now; we've got to win."
Senior Mike Davis has become more outspoken, more of a leader lately. He shares his thoughts as his college career winds down.
"I was disappointed in our game against Michigan, but we've got to forget about that and take care of business Friday. It's a winnable game. We've just got to use our effort and attitude and talents.
"They finished five wins in a row, while we stumbled. We haven't won back-to-back games in 2011. We've got to take care of business. We've just got to have the effort and attitude to do it. Listen to Coach, be coachable, study the scouting report. There's small things we've got to do.
"We've got to take one game at a time and help the young guys. This our last chance, so we have to tell those young guys to play as hard as they can. Play Illinois basketball.
"It's my last game if we don't win. I don't want it to be my last game. I want to win some games and make some noise and have a good finish to my career."
Senior Bill Cole reminds what the Illini are up against.
"We know how good they are. They're a very good team, and they played in a conference that was very tough with BYU and San Diego State. Those are a majority of their losses. They lost to both of those guys twice. San Diego State got a two seed, and in their conference tournament they only lost to them by two.
"They beat Wisconsin early in the year, they beat Virginia Tech. We know Lon Kruger is a good coach. We're definitely not underestimating them in the least.
"It's been tough at times, but it's been good at times too. We're trying to stabilize it a little bit here and hopefully hit a peak in the tournament. You can't really change what's been. We're looking forward to the tournament because we got in, and now anything can happen."
Senior point guard Demetri McCamey emphasized UI defensive effort in his preparations for UNLV.
"They do a lot of pin-downs and single-singles for their shooters. And they press a lot. We're gonna have to find schemes for that, close out on shooters and make sure we have a good defensive scheme to stop the single-singles and the pin-downs.
"I think we've got the right tools and the right people in the right places, so we've just got to go out and play for 40 minutes. You've got to know this could be your last college game for the seniors. So that fear factor and that intensity will bring out the best in us."
Weber and the team have been maligned for not living up to expectations. The Jekyll-Hyde nature of this group has been frustrating, and fans have lost patience. But Weber also knows a win or two in the NCAA Tournament can help fans forget even if they can't forgive.
"If you finish strong, it's a positive. We've had some good moments this year, we've had some disappointing moments. I'm just hoping for the kids' sake and the program's sake we can end on a positive note.
"Especially for our seniors. They've been through a lot of ups and downs, and I'm hoping for their sake they'll rise up and play at a high level, and we can have some success here at the end."
The pressure of making the NCAA field has been immense for the Illini this year. Each loss magnified the problem. Now they are in the Tournament, and Weber hopes and prays the Illini can relax and play like they did at the beginning of the season.
"We can't play uptight. We've got to play free and confident. We can compete with everybody. Now we've just got to put it together for 40 minutes, and then hopefully another opportunity Sunday."