CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois coach Bruce Weber sat at a card table surrounded by reporters Sunday night, getting to know UNLV, the team his Illini will face in the NCAA tournament, as best he could with nothing more than a roster and rundown of wins and losses to work with.
The one thing Weber and the rest of the Illini know for sure, the eighth-seeded Rebels (24-8) are coached by one of the two main men Illini fans sometimes compare Weber to, Lon Kruger.
And if the ninth-seeded Illini (19-13) can get by UNLV Friday in Tulsa, Okla., they might well face the other one, the man Weber replaced, Kansas coach Bill Self.
All of that mattered little Sunday to an Illinois team just relieved to be in the NCAAs for the first time in two years. A year ago, they were stunned by an NCAA snub and trying to muster some enthusiasm for the NIT.
“After what I experienced last year, you never know,” said senior Bill Cole, who pointed out that Illinois had to wait for two of the tournament’s four regions to be filled before learning it was in. “When the first two regions go by, you’re just begging to hear your name called.”
The Illini were shocked to be left out of the NCAAs last year, their second tourney miss in three seasons.
And their last trip two years ago, as a No. 5 seed, ended with a first-round upset loss to 12th-seed Western Kentucky, a game that still leaves a bad taste for Illinois’ four starting seniors: Cole, Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis.
That 76-72 loss, Davis said Sunday, should hold a lesson for the Illini: Cliche or not, take the tournament one game at a time.
“Back then we saw Western Kentucky and we thought “Aw, we’re gonna’ win this one,'” he said.
The Illini aren’t exactly riding a high as they get ready for UNLV, either.
They lost 60-55 to Michigan in their opener at the Big Ten tournament on Friday after leading by as many as 12 points.
That loss was reminiscent of a string of disappointing and often close losses for Illinois. The Illini opened the season ranked No. 13 and considered a contender for the Big Ten title. They finished in a tie for fourth.
UNLV spent four weeks in the Top 25, but dropped out for good after an up-and-down start in the conference.
The Rebels finished third in the Mountain West and won their last five regular-season games. They knocked off Wisconsin and Kansas State early but lost twice each to the elite of their conference, San Diego State and BYU.
Kruger coached the Illini for four seasons, leaving after the 1999-2000 season to become head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. He took over at UNLV in 2004.
Kruger’s Illini went to the NCAA tournament three times in four years, won a Big Ten title in 1997-98 and finished in the Top 25 three times.
At UNLV, he’s had similar success, coaching four of his seven teams to the NCAAs, including four of the last five.
The Rebels are led by Tre’Von Willis, who averages 13.5 points a game, and Chace Stanback, who averages 13 points a game and six rebounds.
Sunday night, Weber said he knew Kruger fairly well and faced him while an assistant at Purdue.
“He’s a very, very good coach and that team will be well coached and play hard,” Weber said.
Beyond that, he said he didn’t know yet just what to expect beyond the likelihood that a smaller UNLV team was likely to press and trap.
McCamey said the Illini will need to rely on good defense to counter that strategy.
“If you get stops and get out in transition, they can’t press you,” McCamey said.
Weber declined to look ahead at a potential matchup with Self and the Southwest top-seed Jayhawks. Kansas opens with Boston University, a 16 seed.
Some fans on Internet message boards and elsewhere over the past couple of seasons have compared Weber unfavorably to Self, sometimes saying Weber’s best year, the 2005 run to the NCAA final, was built on players Self recruited.
Tisdale said, while he’s focused on UNLV, the idea of beating at least one of his coach’s predecessors would add a little extra incentive.
“Everybody’s going to be talking about Kansas and Illinois and all this stuff, but our focus right now is UNLV,” the 7-foot-1 center said. “We’re going to do what we can to win one for our coach.”