We did something different with this edition of Thunder Chat. We decided to do it person to person. Our subject this time is the men’s basketball head coach at UNLV, Lon Kruger. Coack Kruger has been in the game for a long time and has coached in the Big 8 (Big 12), the Big Ten, the SEC and now the Mountain West. He also has coached for the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks. He has over 450 wins in his career and has taken four different teams, Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV to the NCAA Tournament. In our interview we discussed such topics as the possiblity of a Super Conference and the “one and done” scenario that is playing out at a lot of schools across the nation. Also we asked him if he had any advice for Tom Izzo, who is rumored to be taking the Cleveland Cavaliers head coaching job, on what to expect when or if he makes the jumps.
Another thing we discussed was the LB3 Memorial. I cannot stress enough how great this Memorial is. Lindsay Bennett was a young girl that was killed by a reckless, alledgedly drunken, driver. This memorial was setup by her family to spread awareness and help prevent such accidents. Please take the time to check out the website and if you can, make a donation. The smallest amount will help. Thanks to Coach Kruger for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with us! For those of you who can’t listen to the interview, I spent the time to transcribe it for you below…
Hey, it’s Dan and Mike from ThunderTreats.com
“Yes Dan, how you doing?”
I’m good, how are you?
“I’m doing very well, thank you.”
Alright, thanks for taking your time to do this.
“You bet, no problem. Thanks for the call.”
We’re just going to get started right away, is that cool with you?
So we were wondering, we know you have been involved in sports all your life and we were wondering if there was ever anything you ever wanted to do in life besides basketball.
“Actually I grew up with my first love being baseball. Certainly everything revolved around sports growing up, but baseball was always the first love. I went to a small high school so what ever was in season, everyone played. We had football, baseball and basketball so whatever season it was, all the guys just jumped in there and played.“
You guys had some really, really good talent last year in the Mountain West and 4 teams made the tournament, what do you look forward to this year and who do you think the favorite is going into the season this year?
“I think it will be a very similar league in that the top 4 teams really return the bulk of their lineups and the others that weren’t in the first division I really think will all be improved. So the league will be as good as it was last year. I think the year before last was the best that it had been during the 10 year history. Last year was even better and I think this year really has a chance to be better than last year. So, I think, from top to bottom the league will be stronger yet.“
You have coached in the Big 8, the SEC. the Big Ten and obviously the Mountain West. I was just wondering, in your opinion, which one of those conferences had the best competition and where was the hardest place to land recruits?
“All those leagues are tough. Every time you line up in any of those leagues you know its going to be tough to win a conference game, that’s just the way it is. I think all these coaches feel that the league you are in is the most balanced and most competitive. As far as the toughest place to recruit, again you always identify people that you feel you have a chance to recruit or a chance to get. That changes from place to place. When we first went to Florida, they were in all kinds of struggles with the NCAA and the FBI so we had to overcome that stigma which was tough initially. All in all, I really think Vegas gives us the best chance to get in on the widest number of players because all those players attend summer camps in July in Vegas, they are exposed to Vegas, Las Vegas has that unique city in the world so there’s a whole lot of reasons I think the chance to recruit here has been very, very good.“
You can grab those kids from Southern Cal and Arizona.
“Exactly, California has been a big key to us in recruiting and that hopefully won’t change.“
So the NCAA Tournament has been expanded this year to 68 teams, so that is new going into the season. Were you in favor when they were talking about going to 96? Would you be in favor of a large tournament or are you comfortable where we are with the 68?
“I think we will continue to expand in time and I’m in favor of it. I like the idea of more kids have the opportunity to experience NCAA Tournament play. It’s a great memory that they will have for a lifetime and I don’t think it will take away from the competitiveness or interest at all. Every time we have expanded over the last two or three decades the tournament has gotten bigger and better so I don’t think that will change if we expand to 96 eventually.“
There has been a lot of talk lately about the super conferences with Nebraska joining the Big 10 and there was some talk of possibly Boise State joining the Mountain West. I know the focus is now seems to be on football for these teams, but how will this effect basketball? Is this something you guys think about?
“It will definitely affect everyone. It’s something that really the coaches don’t necessarily have a vote in but certainly it’s a part of our conversation. We’re very interested in what’s happening around the country and like you say, if Nebraska jumps and someone else makes a move, and the Pac-10 gets aggressive, I think you will see a definite domino effect in terms of all the leagues changing to some degree. It’s going to be exciting either way and we’ll look forward to lining up and playing with whoever’s in our conference.“
Going back to what you said on recruits in Vegas and how it has the lights and everything and its attractive, once you get your recruits here that maybe aren’t from the Las Vegas area is it hard to keep them focused throughout the year because of the city they play in?
“It hasn’t been at all. We wondered that seven years ago when we came in. We wondered that ourselves, what factor that would play. We quickly realized that every campus in the country has concerns from a standpoint of keeping the guys responsible, making good decision and taking care of business. There is opportunity to make bad decisions on every campus in the country, so Vegas is not any different but it’s not any worse either.“
Well I give you credit because it’s hard to keep them in line out here I’m sure.
“It hasn’t been any different than any other campus we have been on really. Every fraternity kid in the country has gambling everywhere, drugs everywhere and unfortunately when you stop and think about it there is potential to make bad decisions in any of those areas on every campus in the country.“
So you’ve coached college ball for a while now, but you have also coached the Hawks and the Knicks and spent some time in the NBA. Have you ever thought of going back to the NBA? Is it something you would strive towards or is it comfortable here in Vegas and in the college game?
“I haven’t thought about being anywhere else at all, this is a great place to be. My wife Barb and I love living in Las Vegas. It’s a great place, a great university and we love the people we are working with. Throughout my career I’ve never thought about any other job than the one I’ve had. We are very fortunate to have this opportunity and hopefully we’ll be here a long time.“
Is there anything you would advise Coach Izzo up in Michigan State to do? He’s in a situation now where it looks like he may be leaving or he may be coming back, he may have talked to his players already or he may not have, there are a lot of reports in the media right now. Is there anything you would advise him to do since you have been in the NBA and you have been in the college game?
“Oh, I wouldn’t advise Tom. He’s a veteran and he’s been very successful. We go back to the Big Ten days together when I was at Illinois and he was at Michigan State and we’re good friends. I know whatever he does will be well thought out and he’ll make a good decision. I know he is concerned about everyone that decision will affect but that is just the nature of change, whether it be college or the NBA.“
I know it’s going to hurt us who fill out the brackets every year because we won’t be able to pencil him in all the way to the Final Four.
“It’s pretty good when he’s got the tradition that he has there and he’s done a terrific job and where ever he is he’ll do a good job.“
How do you think the “one and done’s” have done, the rule where you can’t enter the draft out of high school? How has that affected the college game? How have you seen it change since that rule has been put in place?
“I think everyone would prefer that everyone stay in college longer. I think the NBA would prefer that, college coaches would prefer that, but with the rights of the players it’s just not that situation right now. Most players that go from college to the NBA would be better off if they spent another year or two in college but there are exceptions to that when you look at the Durant’s, LeBron James’ and Kobe Bryant’s but there really aren’t many of those that couldn’t have benefitted more from another year or two in college.“
I guess in the same breath you could say we should be happy that there is a “one” that they have to go for. They have to go for that one year instead of making the jump too early maybe like how some people say Sebastian Telfair went too early.
“Exactly, I think more often than not the list of those that would have been better off staying in college longer is much, much longer than the list of the kids that didn’t need college at all.“
We have talked obviously a lot about basketball here, but we know your not basketball all the time and we have seen this in the LB3 Memorial that you have set up. Can you explain to some of our readers that are unaware of what the LB3 Memorial is and how it came about?
“It came about as a result of a tragedy. A young gal, Lindsay Bennett who was a member of our dance squad, “The Rebel Girls” at UNLV, was killed by an allegedly drunken driver going the wrong way on an entry on [Interstate] 215. As a result of that her parents, Mike and Jane who are just terrific people and Andrew her brother tried to make something good of it and they’ve set up an organization, LB3, where by people can pledge an amount for every three pointer the Rebels make. Of course they can pledge an amount regardless of that if they want to. They are going to provide assistance to the designated driver programs and provide more awareness about driving while drunk. It’s amazing what they are doing as a family and it’s certainly to their credit. They’re doing it so other families don’t have to experience the loss of a child through no fault of her own. It’s a tough circumstance but they are making as much from it as they can and hopefully people will jump in there and learn all they can about it and contribute to it.“
Well, I know we have linked to it before and we will definitely set it up again on Thunder Treats… As well as that, you also just finished up Coaches vs. Cancer.
“We have. The coaches of the Mountain West Conference Men’s Basketball hosted the event a couple weeks ago and we raised $175,000 for everyone who has been touched by cancer. These guys have given their time and brought in boosters from other programs around the country. Frank Martin, from Kansas State brought in three foursomes to play golf for a couple days and contribute to the cause. This has been the signature event or charity for the National Association of Basketball Coaches for the last twenty five years and on campuses all across the country, coaches are doing things to raise funds to help in the research and awareness and hopefully to find a cure for a horrible disease.“
Is Coach Martin as intimidating on the golf course as he is on the sidelines?
“He’s very intimidating. He’s a guy with a big heart and again he’s contributed over the last three years. He’s come every year and brought 3 foursomes this year, 2 last year and 1 the first year so he’s brought 6 foursomes to the event and been the biggest contributor of all the schools in the country.“
How’s your handicap then coach?
“Well I like to play but I never play as well as I’d like to but from May to September I play quite a bit. I don’t play any during the season of course, but I can get a lot in out here and it’s warm, so not many people are playing so that makes it easy to get out there and play more.“
My score is usually around the same as the temperature. Usually in the triple digits.
“Well then you need to play in January, get down there in the 50’s.“
Alright, well that wraps up most of our questions, I have a couple quick response or one word answer I can get from you?
OK, besides the Thomas and Mack Center, where is your favorite place to play?
“In the conference, probably the Pit in Albuquerque. The fans are great and right on top of you and they are a great home court crowd and Steve’s [Alford] got them going really big down there.“
What gets you more pumped up a breakaway dunk or a huge block?
“I’ll go with the defensive stand there. Get a block that leads to a dunk on the other end.“
Just like when LeBron James comes up from behind somebody right?
Love it, absolutely. There are some amazing plays he is making.
Do you have a favorite player you got to coach?
“Oh, it would be hard to pick one out. I’ve been very lucky to coach not only good players, but really good guys and a lot of guys that are great teammates. In fact, I got a call from Joel Anthony today, with the Miami Heat. He was such a good player here for us and no one expected him to play in the NBA and he’s going to make a 10 year career out of it because of his work ethic and great attitude and how good of a teammate he is. The Heat coaches just love him.“
That’s great coach. You said you played some baseball and it was your first love…I’m just saying that we might play in a certain recreational softball league on Sunday nights at Freedom park and, ya know, if we’re ever a man down we know who to call right?
“Oh give us a call, we’d love to come out there.“
Alright Coach, that’s all we got for you. Thank you very much for taking the time out to talk to us, we really appreciate it.
“No problem, thanks for the call, my pleasure.“
Hey good luck next season too.