Two years ago Saturday, Florida's Lon Kruger hopped a flight to Savoy, dined with Illinois officials at Kennedy's and made a handshake deal to become their 14th men's basketball coach.
In his short stay here, Kruger has won 45 games, more than any Illinois coach before him managed their first two years.
He's won NCAA tournament games in back-to-back years, which Illinois hadn't done since 1989.
He's won a piece of the Big Ten title, Illinois' first in 14 years.
And those who know him best say he'll keep on winning in years to come.
"It's hard for me to see a team that is going to fight as hard as a Coach Kruger team's going to fight to not pick up a bunch of those wins in the Big Ten that plain and simply go to the team that fights harder," forward Brian Johnson said. "Illinois is always going to get a lot of those."
News-Gazette staff writer Jeff D'Alessio sat down with Kruger on Wednesday to get his thoughts on the past, present and future of Illinois basketball.
N-G: Ever been around a group that's come so far in a season?
LK: None that's come any farther, when you think about November, December. Those were great learning experiences, so it wasn't like they weren't valuable and it wasn't really good for this team. But then, to go from kind of up-and-down play in December, where we're kind of searching for roles and searching for a comfort zone, to being extremely consistent through the 16 conference games. I've never been around a team that's kind of just all of the sudden clicked and then really taken it and run with it and be better consistently from then on.
N-G: The high point of 1997-98 for you?
LK: I think the high point generally is to see these guys grasp an understanding of what it takes for them as a group to be successful. That being the trusting of one another, the depending on one another, the understanding of how together they can get it done. Individually, that's not the way it's done. It's done as a team. For them to really genuinely grasp that, and then promote that in their play, is probably the high point.
As it relates to a moment, it would have to be their celebrating – the feeling that they had and the satisfaction that that they had – when they realized that they shared the Big Ten championship.
N-G: The low point?
LK: There really weren't many. The obvious one would be the only time they didn't respond to another team's run after the first of the year: the Big Ten tournament game against Purdue. And Purdue was really clicking. Purdue was hot. And we missed some shots when they were making their run and that kind of magnified it. All of the sudden, it kind of looked like almost we're back in December, in terms of searching and being unsure. But they recovered from that quickly and had a good week of practice in preparation for NCAAs.
N-G: You took some steps to make the Assembly Hall a more intimidating place for opponents to visit. Where do you go from here?
LK: That really depends on the students and the fans. We're going to promote it like crazy. I hear Illinois fans say that they want the Assembly Hall to be one of the more intimidating places in the country. Well, if that's the case, it takes an investment – of time and energy and attitude. We're going to promote the opportunity for that to happen. It'll be an exciting, young group next year with a lot of new faces. I think we're going to have a fun group to get behind again. There are a lot of levels we can go through to get to that point where we are one of the best crowds in the country."
N-G: Are you thinking about changing the look of the Assembly Hall?
LK: Those discussions are ongoing right now, and I think there is a lot of potential for change. We need to continue to try to get more students to the court. There's talk about doing away with the floor-level scoreboards, so we can get more students in there. We can take that to a certain point. But the best crowds are the ones that are spontaneous and take it and run with it and we're a ways away from there.
N-G: Is the program where you expected it'd be after two seasons?
LK: Oh, I didn't have any idea. We've got an exciting starting point for next year. Every year, what you desire to have happen, is that your starting point is advanced from the year before. That's been the case for these two years and we want that to be the case after next year. What this group accomplished maybe has kind of thrown a wrench into that. It's hard to advance from what this group has done, but that's the challenge for next year's group and I know they'll look forward to it.
N-G: Do you expect to receive a contract extension soon?
LK: Oh, I don't know. Ron (Guenther) has mentioned that, but we've had no discussion other than a brief mention. I've never been concerned about that anywhere I've been. Don't worry too much about that.
N-G: How do you go about finding five new starters next year?
LK: We won't even worry about that, quite frankly. We enjoy the teaching part of it and the fundamental part of it, and we'll jump into that very early and very aggressively. And the starting positions will take care of themselves. I really believe that. I tell the players on Day 1 that we won't determine who starts, you guys will. And that's the way it is."
N-G: Will next year's Illini have a different style?
LK: Oh, I think so. I think it will be a team that will be able to push it a little more, be able to press a little bit more, be able to dictate over 94 feet a little bit more. I think that will be more of a strength of next year's club than this year's. You always try to adjust to what your people can do most effectively. I've never felt locked in to playing a certain way. We'd like to press and run and be the aggressor, and yet you're always trying to do what your people can do most effectively.
N-G: How much of a factor will Cory Bradford be next year?
LK: Cory had as good a year as anyone that I've been around in a redshirt mode. To not be able to play and yet to practice as hard as he did and to maintain a constant focus as he did, is difficult to do. Cory never had that game to look forward to, as you do if you're practicing with eligibility. Cory's goal and objective was always really getting better for next year and sometimes it's difficult to maintain that constant focus when your first game is so far away. And yet he did that. And did it very well and consistently.
N-G: Expectations for Festus Hawkins?
LK: They're high, as they are for anyone coming in with size. Because we need people with size to step in and contribute right away. Festus' having been here a semester gives him a little different insight. Having gone through a preseason conditioning program gives him a little, maybe, headstart in his development. For him to have three years of eligibility is a huge bonus for him and the program. And yet we need him to step in with a lot of awareness right away.
N-G: Do you expect Frank Williams to be in uniform next year?
LK: I think so. Frank's a guy that's still making progress and needs to make progress as it relates to the academic requirements, was doing that and we're encouraged by where he's at and optimistic about him making it. I think that's the only way to approach it.
N-G: Impressions of the first Big Ten tournament?
LK: I think it was great. A lot of teams specifically benefited from the experience. Think about what Michigan did. Think about how great Purdue was playing coming out of there. I think Michigan State losing in the first round, Illinois losing in the semis – both benefited from a loss. I know we did, and it appears Michigan State did, getting to the Sweet 16. Indiana wins a first-round game to solidify their NCAA look. Minnesota wins two games to get them to the .500 level, so they couldn't have played in the NIT if it wasn't for that. I think a lot of people benefited from it. Great atmosphere – for a first-year event, especially. Players loved it. It was financially good for the league. Good for the schools. A good thing.
N-G: Your 1998-99 schedule features away games against Kansas (in Kansas City), Clemson (Greenville, S.C.), Missouri (St. Louis), Bradley (Chicago), Texas-Pan American (Edinburg, Texas); Assembly Hall dates with Valparaiso, St. Louis and Eastern Illinois; and two games in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (with Wake Forest, Georgetown and Temple). Anyone we're forgetting?
LK: That's tough enough. There's still a series we're trying to start, but we haven't gotten anything locked in. If we start a series, it's got to be at home. We're talking to a couple of schools from the A-10 and a couple of schools from the Big East, but there's not been conversation to the point that it's likely going to be anyone.
N-G: Think you'll ever play UIC again?
LK: We wouldn't mind doing that at some point. It's hard to do it every year, especially when every other year's off our campus. It just becomes a financial thing that's got to be considered.
N-G: So do you stop recruiting, now that all of your scholarships are tied up?
LK: Oh no. You're always out, as much as the rules permit. We'll go to Peoria and watch all those games on Friday and Saturday. Recruiting is relationships. So anytime you can be out meeting people and seeing people and getting to know them and them getting to know you, I think that's part of recruiting. There's not a specific person, but it's still recruiting. So that's ongoing forever.
N-G: Are you comfortable with your relationship with the Chicago Public League?
LK: Yeah. You always look to get the best players, the best people, that fit your program the best. And we'll always recruit people that come out of the Public League that we feel fit well. That won't change. We'll just keep doing what we're doing in terms of trying to attract the best people/players that we possibly can. Where they come from doesn't concern us a great deal. If they're Public League, fine. If they're not, fine. As long as they're of the quality that allows us to compete successfully. But we'll always recruit the Public League.
N-G: What are the chances you'll sign someone this spring?
LK: We're still recruiting a little bit. But we will not sign anyone else this spring.
N-G: Are you going to have a tough time keeping your assistants around?
LK: We've got guys that are very capable as head coaching prospects. And that's great. We don't look at as trouble keeping them around. If they get other opportunities, that would be great. We always promote that. That's a good problem to have – having quality people that are attractive to other programs as potential head coaches.
N-G: You'll be assisting Rudy Tomjanovich this summer at the World Championships in Greece. Practice starts on July 8 and the games end on Aug. 9. That's right in the middle of recruiting season.
LK: It'll affect how many things I go to. With the recruiting situation as it is, like you mentioned, this opportunity's coming at a good time. I don't know that you sign a lot of people as a result of what you do in July. I don't know if you sign anyone as a result of what you do in July. I think you're forming a foundation, you're learning more about different prospects, but you never sign anyone by being out in July.
N-G: Any aspirations to one day coach the Olympic team?
LK: No, not really. I mean, I've never stopped to think about it. Didn't stop to think about what I'm doing this summer, either. I don't think people plan for those things. Things happen and I'm not concerned about it.
N-G: I've seen magazines mention you as pro coaching candidate.
LK: Well, if you read enough magazines, everyone's mentioned at one time or another. Nah, again, it's one of those things I don't think about or worry myself about. I've always been fortunate to be in situations where I've had the opportunity to enjoy what I'm doing. I don't think about other things.
N-G: Who's going to be in San Antonio next weekend?
LK: I think Purdue's got a great chance in the Midwest. In the South, boy, that's a tough regional. I would have said Duke going in, but I wouldn't have been surprised at all if Kentucky ended up there. I think Duke will beat Syracuse. Kentucky will beat UCLA. I don't know. Kentucky could beat Duke, but I still would pick Duke.
On the other side, I think Arizona has the best chance to win it all. I really like their depth, their athleticism, their guard play, their having been there and having done it. I don't sense they're feeling pressure of repeating. I sense they're kind of using that to draw strength from, almost. Then on the other side, the logical pick is Carolina, but I really think Michigan State's got a chance to beat them.
N-G: And your pick to win it all?
LK: I'd like to go with our league and like to think that Purdue and Michigan State could, but I just think Arizona's so deep and athletic and got great guard play.