Kruger: 'He'll love it there'
CHAMPAIGN — Lon Kruger spent Saturday afternoon watching basketball in Oklahoma City.
The former Illinois coach and current Oklahoma coach was at Chesapeake Energy Arena as former Sooners standout Buddy Hield scored 11 points for the Sacramento Kings in a 110-94 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But Kruger was well aware of what was transpiring around his old stomping grounds with Illinois hiring Brad Underwood on Saturday afternoon to become the program’s 18th head coach.
“He’ll love it there,” Kruger told The News-Gazette. “There are fantastic folks in Champaign-Urbana. It’s a wonderful city and a terrific Big Ten institution.”
Kruger, who coached Illinois from 1996 to 2000, compiling an 81-48 record and three NCAA tournament appearances, has known Underwood since the early 1980s. Both played for legendary Kansas State coach Jack Hartman, although their playing careers never overlapped, with Kruger graduating from Kansas State in 1975 and Underwood graduating in 1986.
Kruger endorsed the move made by Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman.
“Brad’s done a fantastic job wherever he’s been, not just as a coach, but as a person in the community,” Kruger said. “Illinois folks will love him.”
Kruger coached against Underwood twice this past season, with Underwood’s team at Oklahoma State knocking off Kruger’s Sooners in both games — 96-92 on Feb. 18 in Stillwater, Okla., and 68-66 on Jan. 30 in Norman.
The Cowboys averaged 85.7 points per game this season, a season that ended Friday with a 92-91 loss to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That scoring offense ranked seventh in the country.
“He’s played a lot of different styles in a short time,” Kruger said. “They pushed it very effectively in the backcourt this year, and his teams will typically always guard you very well.”
Underwood has ties to the state dating back to his stint as an assistant coach at Western Illinois from 1992 to 2003. Kruger, who enjoyed a pipeline of Peoria-area talent during his tenure that included Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and Frank Williams, doesn’t think he’ll have a problem recruiting at Illinois, particularly in the Chicagoland area.
“He’ll be a great recruiter,” Kruger said. “He’s a relationship guy, a people person, and he’s a smart guy. He’ll do what he needs to do with recruiting.”