Lon Kruger's basketball teams have the reputation for playing hard regardless of circumstances. That was never more evident than his third season at Illinois.
The lowest seed in the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois upset three nationally ranked teams to reach the finals.
"He got players to buy into the last-chance motivation," said Rod Cardinal, Illinois' trainer for nearly 30 years. "We went on a miraculous run."
Losing five senior starters off a team that tied for the Big Ten title, Kruger faced a rebuilding year in 1998-99.
Illinois finished 3-13 in league play. The Illini were 11-17 heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
The next four days are legendary in Champaign.
Illinois jumped to a 33-11 lead to upset No. 23-ranked Minnesota in the opening round.
In the quarterfinals, the Illini dominated No. 17 Indiana, 82-66.
In the semifinals, Illinois upset No. 11 Ohio State, which would play in the Final Four. After the game, Buckeyes coach Jim O'Brien called Illinois the best last-place team in America.
"It's something you never forget," said former Illini player Cory Bradford, who has played the past 11 years overseas. "No one expected us to do anything. Coach Kruger always found a way to motivate you."
Illini fans knew it was a bridge season. A heralded class of Brian Cook, Frank Williams and Marcus Griffin would arrive the following year to start an eight-year run that included four Big Ten titles and a Final Four appearance under Bill Self and Bruce Weber.
Kruger led Illinois to the second round of the NCAA Tournament three of his four seasons. Even his one "down season" was memorable.
Playing several freshmen, Kruger realized a young team could digest only so much. Before the Big Ten Tournament, he installed a new offense, allowing players to play a more wide open style.
"Coach Kruger knows how to get the best out of you," Bradford said. "I wasn't a shooter until I got to Illinois. I had a decent jump shot. But Coach Kruger was like, 'This is the Big Ten. You can't dunk all the time.'"
The Cinderella run ended against No. 2 Michigan State, which also advanced to the Final Four.
"We just ran out of gas," said Illinois State assistant Rob Judson, an assistant on Kruger's staff at Illinois. "But that was a great run with a team that was very young and had been down all season."
The unexpected run posed challenges. No one, not even Kruger, packed enough clothes for four days.
"We had to scramble to make restaurant reservations," Cardinal said. "The bus driver had to reschedule plans he'd made with his family. What a memorable run. We're still the first and only 11th seed to make the championship game."