CHAMPAIGN – He wore a tux to Lon and Barbara Kruger's wedding, gave Rob Judson a job, took Jerry Hester on a European vacation and used to have Sergio McClain's home number on his speed dial.
Jim Molinari's first coaching experience against Illinois is sure to be a weird one.
"My personal opinion is that it's not really enjoyable coaching against your friends," said Molinari, Bradley's basketball coach and Kruger's best buddy. "It's very awkward. But you do what's best for your program."
So whose program is tonight's first Bradley-Illinois scuffle in 24 years best for?
A Bradley victory stops presses, is the hot topic at taverns and gets brought up in NCAA tournament selection meetings.
Like Western Michigan 68, Michigan 63.
"It's huge for our program," said Bradley forward Matt Moran, who may sit it out with a bum foot. "It's a mid-major playing a Big Ten school. If we beat a major team like Illinois, it would help in the postseason, it would help our reputation, it would help attract better players."
An Illinois victory in the regular season and Assembly Hall opener is what the college basketball world's expecting.
Like it does every time a Missouri Valley Conference team visits a Big Ten team (Northwestern doesn't count). It's risky business to book one from 90 miles down the road.
"I guess you could look at it that way, but I really don't think about it that way," Kruger said. "I think it's good for basketball in the area. It's a good series. It's a chance for us to kind of go back into Peoria and express an appreciation for being able to recruit successfully in that area."
It's part of a three-year, three-game series, with other stops scheduled for Chicago's United Center (1998) and Peoria's Civic Center ('99).
The last one's for Illinois' Peoria guys. With Hester, who played for Molinari in the World University Games, and McClain, who grew up a Brave backer, Illinois has two more than Bradley. And don't forget about coming attractions Frank Williams and Marcus Griffin.
"We like playing people from areas where we've recruited," Kruger said. "We've got players from Peoria, of course, and I think that makes it very natural."
The series came about this summer when Kruger and Molinari were talking hoops. It was getting late, and both still had to fill in a blank on their schedules.
Aside from their 1974 meeting in Chicago (a 105-88 Braves win), Illinois and Bradley haven't hooked up since 1937, when FDR was president, Lou Henson was 5 and Lou Boudreau was knocking down shots at Huff Hall.
"I think we were just talking about each one of us needing games, and one of us said, 'Maybe we might need to look at playing each other,' " Kruger said. "I don't know who initiated it, but I think we were both thinking along the same lines."
So when's the Illinois-Illinois State game?
"We've not had anyone say, 'Well, you've played Bradley. Why aren't you playing us?' type of thing," Kruger said.
And if ISU coach Kevin Stallings called? Is Kruger interested in renewing other state series?
"Well, if we recruit players from those areas, we definitely would," Kruger said.
Kruger isn't the first Big Ten coach to let Bradley, a postseason team for the last four years, take its best shot.
Michigan did just last winter and almost paid for it, winning 66-64 in overtime. Penn State squeaked out a three-point win over the Braves in 1995 and a four-point win in '96.
"Anytime a Missouri Valley Conference school has the opportunity to play a Big Ten or Big 12 school, they want to win, to help their power rating and help that league advance," said Illinois assistant Judson, who was sitting next to Molinari on the Braves bench when they stunned Georgia Tech in a 1995 game.
The Illini have won five straight openers, last starting with a loss in 1991-92 when Penn State handed them the first of 15 defeats.
The year before that was the last time they dropped a nonconference game to a team from Illinois (71-60 to Illinois-Chicago).
But after a rough exhibition run – and Bradley's 81-54 romp of 1997 NCAA tournament team Montana on Saturday – folks are beginning to wonder if the preseason magazines were right when they picked Illinois seventh or eighth in the Big Ten.
"I know people that saw us play the first two exhibition games may be down on us," Illinois forward Victor Chukwudebe said. "We want to change people's perceptions of us."
Molinari's perception of the Illini is the same as it was before the losses to the Australian National Team and NBC Thunder:
Five senior starters, veteran guards, a smart cookie drawing up the plays and a couple of fired-up Peorians.
"I've never been one, and neither has Lonnie, to let those exhibition losses bother you too much," Molinari said. "It tends to get the players focused more."
Kruger sure hopes so.
"Like I told the players, it's not like we're in a midseason slump here. It's not like we're in a panic mode," Kruger said. "But there comes a point where we have to realize that we've got to give more attention to detail."