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Lon Kruger led Illinois to Cinderella run

By Mike Baldwin, Staff Writer, Published: July 13, 2011

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.

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