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
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
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
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.”
Self vs. Kruger
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