Lon Kruger’s lone trip to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four had a happy ending for at least one member of his family. Kruger coached Florida to a national semifinal match against Duke in 1994, and the Blue Devils, led by Grant Hill, rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second half to earn a 70-65 victory.
The loss sent 10-year-old Kevin Kruger, Lon’s son, into tears. However, the youngster also was a big Blue Devils fan, and he ended up smiling ear to ear after Duke’s sports information director led him into the winning team’s locker room, where Kevin got to meet the players and Hill signed his shoes.
“He got over it quicker than I did,” Coach Kruger says, laughing. “To say the least.”
Kruger is back in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in his six seasons at UNLV, and the 12th time in 24 seasons as a head coach. He is 14-11 all time, including 8-3 in first-round games, and is just the second head coach in college basketball history (along with Jim Harrick) to lead four schools to multiple NCAA appearances—having done so with Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV.
Kruger, 57, not only reached the NCAA Tournament three times as an assistant coach at Kansas State, he led the Wildcats there as a player in 1972 and ’73.
After missing the NCAAs in Kruger’s first two years at UNLV, the Rebels, led by Kevin Kruger, went on a magical run in 2007 to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1991. UNLV reached the second round of the tournament in 2008, but failed to make the field of 65 last year.
With the Rebels playing a first-round game against Northern Iowa on March 19, Kruger says a key to success in the tournament is sticking with what got you there.
“With players, you don’t want to have to worry about getting ready to play. You want them to continue to do what they did to get there,” he says. “You don’t want them to think they have to do something extra all of a sudden. You want them to do what they’ve done to become a good basketball team.”
With Kansas State, Kruger faced UNLV and Jerry Tarkanian in the 1987 tournament as the top-seeded Rebels were on their way to the Final Four. UNLV beat the Wildcats, 80-61, as Armon Gilliam had 24 points and 11 rebounds.
“I remember how good they were, how athletic they were and how big they were,” Kruger says. “We were concerned about our ability to initiate the offense because of their pressure, and that was a realistic concern. Gilliam, the big fella in there, intimidated our guys.”
A year later, the Wildcats won three NCAA Tournament games but lost, 71-58, to Kansas in the Midwest Regional final in Pontiac, Mich. The Jayhawks, led by star forward Danny Manning, went on to win the national title.
“It was one of the tougher losses, because it was to our in-state rival and we had just beaten them in the Big Eight tournament,” Kruger says. “Seeing them go on and win the championship even makes it harder.”
Kruger left Kansas State after the 1989-90 season and four NCAA Tournament appearances for Florida, which he led to two NCAA berths in six seasons, including the Final Four appearance. Kruger then led Illinois to three NCAA Tournament berths in four years, but left to coach the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks in 2000.
Kruger, in recalling his past, says he realizes just how precious each season is.
“All of a sudden, the time flies,” he says. “Philosophically, it’s been a huge priority for our coaching families, players and fans to enjoy it. Compete like crazy, but enjoy what you’re doing. It does go by quickly.”
Kruger hopes not too quickly this year.