Lon Kruger surprised to draw Illini

UNLV coach Lon Kruger didn't know what to feel on Sunday when his former team, Illinois, was paired as the Rebels' opponent in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Kruger has been around long enough to know anything is possible at tourney time, but he never expected Illinois to appear on his television screen. The teams will face off in Tulsa, Okla., on Friday.

"It's very unique," Kruger said via cell phone from Las Vegas. "A little weird to see their name pop up. It's kind of an uneasy feeling to go back and play. It's been a while.

"It's good we're going to see people we know and folks that were good to us. I loved my time there -- great community, outstanding program. Growing up in Kansas, it was similar in a lot of ways. They've very knowledgeable people and have a great passion for it. It's nothing but positive feelings."

Kruger coached Illinois from 1996-2000. His Illini teams went 81-48 overall and 38-28 in the Big Ten and reached three NCAA tournaments. He left Illinois in 2000 to become the Atlanta Hawks head coach in the NBA. He was hired by UNLV in 2004.

Kruger's team this season has had its up and downs. The Rebels won their first nine games, went through a short slump and have bounced back lately. They've gone 10-3 in their last 13 games with their only losses coming to BYU and San Diego State.

"We started out well, then didn't play well and finished up playing well," Kruger said. "We've played our best basketball in the last month."

Kruger said he didn't know much about Illinois as of Sunday night, but would begin watching tape on the Illini later that evening.

"I know they're going to be super well-prepared and playing very hard," Kruger said. "Coach [Bruce] Weber's team is going to be ready."

Kruger did think it was only a coincidence that Illinois was playing UNLV and the winner would likely play Kansas and another former Illinois coach in Bill Self.

"I would be surprised if they spent too much time on it," Kruger said. "They have enough to think about."

Friday's meeting won't be the last between Illinois and UNLV either. The two teams had previously signed a two-game contract and will play at the United Center in Chicago next season.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.