Self vs. Kruger

OMAHA, NEB. — Bill Self is quite familiar with the coach he'll be facing on the opposing sidelines during Kansas-UNLV's second-round NCAA Tournament matchup on Saturday at the Qwest Center Omaha.

You see, the KU coach took over for Lon Kruger at Illinois in 2000 when Kruger left there after four years. Kruger, now in his fourth year as UNLV head coach, took Illinois to three NCAA Tournaments and won a Big Ten title his second year, the Fighting Illini’s first conference championship in 12 years. Before Kruger arrived in Champaign in 1996, Illinois had won just one NCAA Tournament game since advancing to the Final Four in 1989.

“He’s a great coach,” Bill Self said. “Everybody knows that. He’s fabulous. He was a perfect guy to follow at Illinois because the guys were well taught and he has no ego. All he wanted was for Illinois to be successful. I was really happy with his great run last year with he and his son (Kevin, a standout senior guard on that Sweet 16 team). They lost a lot of guys, but somehow he manages to get them playing at the most opportune time. They’re undersized, but sometimes undersized guys are scrappy and they get under you.”

Kruger, the former K-State star (he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the ninth round of the 1974 NBA Draft) and ex-Wildcats’ coach (1986-90), is also a big fan of Self.

“Bill’s been a good friend, as the coaching fraternity goes,” Kruger said. “He and his wife, Cindy, are terrific. They followed us to Illinois and took that way higher when he got there (Illinois reached the Elite Eight in 2001). He did a great job. He’s done a great job wherever he’s been. Bill’s just terrific in every way.’

Of course, both coaches dearly want to win on Saturday.

“I really respect him as much as you can respect anybody on the sidelines, but it won’t be difficult coaching against him because he was nice to me before,” Self said. “I’m sure he feels the same way. And he’s probably got a little extra motivation being an ex-K-State great and coach and getting the chance to play the Jayhawks.”

Coincidentally, K-State will actually play Wisconsin at the Qwest Center (3:20 p.m.) just before KU’s game with Vegas. The Wildcats’ fans will surely cheer for Kruger and Vegas against KU, likely giving Vegas a more neutral-court game to counterbalance the great Jayhawk fan support.

“We would hope that would be the case,” Kruger said. “I’m not sure how it will play out. It may depend if K-State wins that first one or not. They’d probably like to get KU out of the bracket more than they’d like to cheer for us perhaps. Kansas is going to have a good crowd, no doubt about that. We understand it’s a little bit of a road-like atmosphere. That’s the way when you earn a one seed, you deserve that.”

KU senior center Sasha Kaun actually believes the K-State fans might be cheering for the Jayhawks if the Wildcats happen to beat Wisconsin.

“I know most of the time they’re probably rooting against us, but at this one, I’m pretty sure there’s maybe some (K-State) people that want to us play against each other down the road in the tournament (in the Elite Eight),” Kaun said. “I’m pretty sure they’ll be rooting for us to win this game.”

Whatever the case, Kruger will no doubt be excited to see so much purple in the crowd. He has fond memories of his days at K-State as both a player and coach.

“When I was a player, it was always really hotly contested and really an intense rivalry with coach (Jack) Hartman and coach (Ted) Owens going back and forth with each other, and some great, great battles,” Kruger said. “The atmosphere was always terrific. As a coach, we won a few times but not too many. In fact, we contributed to that long (losing) streak in Manhattan. We did win a couple times in Lawrence and a couple of times maybe in the Big Eight Tournament.”

Kruger’s Wildcats lost a heartbreaker to KU, 71-58, in the Elite Eight in 1988 in Pontiac, Mich., just about 30 miles from Detroit — the city where both he and Self so dearly want to be next week for the Sweet 16. K-State had superstar Mitch Richmond on that ‘88 team, but could not overcome the Jayhawks and All-American Danny Manning.

“I think it probably was the best team (I coached at KSU),” Kruger said. “Mitch Richmond (was) at the core of everything, Steve Henson (current Vegas assistant coach) was the point guard, Will Scott, Charlie Bledsoe, Ron Meyer, Mark Dobbins, goes down the list a long ways of really good players.

“They were fun to work with because they understood what they needed to do to be effective and a lot of that started with getting Mitch the ball and playing off that. (We beat) Kansas (two) weeks earlier in the Big Eight Tournament, pretty soundly, in fact. (K-State won, 69-54). They were kind of down and out. They got a little bit of a roll and Manning stepped up. He was a terrific player. The Elite Eight game was a a pretty good game. (It) seemed K-State had control most of the way, we couldn’t quite get over the hump.”

Twenty years later, Kruger definitely hopes his Runnin’ Rebels can “get over the hump” and shock Kansas on Saturday. His K-State roots make the game even more special.

“(I have) great respect for the (KU) program,” Kruger said. “Of course, as a Wildcat, you never want them to win. So that doesn’t change in that way a lot of respect for Bill and what he does. But still as it relates to K-State, you’ve got those feelings forever once you’re (on) one side or the other.” Top Stories