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The Runnin' Rebels (24-8/11-5/3rd place Mountain West Conference), who are one of three MWC teams in this year's field, gathered on campus Sunday to learn their destination in anticipation of earning what was the storied program's eighth at-large bid in history. Of UNLV's eight losses this season, seven came to teams who made this year's NCAA field (MWC champion San Diego State, MWC regular-season champion BYU, Louisville and Big West Conference champion UC Santa Barbara).
"Anytime you see your name announced up there you feel pretty good about that," said UNLV head coach Lon Kruger. "These guys are very deserving to be playing in the tournament, they're excited about that, we're excited for them, for our fans and everyone involved. Illinois has a great basketball tradition, an outstanding team and we look forward to traveling to Tulsa to play them on Friday."
UNLV, which has won six of its last seven games, drew a No. 8 seed in the Southwest Regional. Illinois (19-13/9-9/T4th Big Ten Conference) is the No. 9 seed and is making its 10th NCAA trip in the last 12 years (38-29 all-time record in NCAA tournament). The game will match UNLV's seventh-year head coach against his former team as Kruger coached the Illini for four seasons from 1996-97 to 1999-2000 before leaving for the NBA to take over the Atlanta Hawks. Kruger has never faced Illinois in his 25 years as a head coach but this will mark the second time he has faced one of his former schools in the NCAA tournament (his final game leading Illinois was a loss to Florida in the second round of the 2000 event).
"We have a lot of good friends in Champagne, Chicago -- the whole Illinois area," Kruger said. "We'll see a lot of people we haven't seen in awhile and that will be good, but right now we're concerned with the Illini team, and we know how good they are. They probably had some games where they played great, and some where they were a little disappointed in the result, but in the first round of the NCAA tournament you expect everyone to play their best."
The winner of the UNLV-Illinois game will advance to play the winner of No. 1-seeded Kansas (32-2/14-2/1st Big 12 Conference) vs. 16th-seeded Boston University (21-13/12-4 America East Conference), on Sunday, March 20. The winner of that game advances to the Southwest Regional in San Antonio on March 25 and 27.
"We hope to have the opportunity to play Kansas, of course that would mean we win the first one," Kruger said. "That's all these guys are going to think about is that first game. You know that with an 8 or 9 seeding, you're going to get a tough opponent in the next round and certainly Kansas is very good. But we're not concerned with that right now, we just hope to have that opportunity."
UNLV was assigned an eight seed for the third time in history but for a third consecutive tournament trip. The program will be traveling to the Sooner State for the second straight year after having played in Oklahoma City in 2010's first round. It will also mark the Rebels' 15th game in the state (a combined 5-9 playing at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, plus last year's NCAA loss to Northern Iowa). UNLV is 3-0 all-time playing in the city of Tulsa, with the most recent coming in a 54-53 victory over the University of Tulsa on Feb. 15, 1999.
The Runnin' Rebels are 0-2 all-time vs. the Illini. They first played on March 19, 1980, in the NIT consolation game in New York City as Illinois took that one, 84-74. The most recent matchup came in the first round of the Maui Invitational on Nov. 20, 2000, when Bill Self's No. 8-ranked Illini downed Bill Bayno's squad 74-69.
UNLV is 14-7 all-time vs. teams from the Big Ten, including 1-0 this season as Kruger's squad defeated Wisconsin at home, 68-65, on Nov. 20, 2010. UNLV is 3-2 all-time vs. Big Ten teams in the NCAA tournament, beating Iowa in the Elite Eight in 1987; losing to Indiana in the Final Four that same year; losing to Iowa in the second round of the 1988 tournament; beating Ohio State in the second round of the championship run in 1990; and most recently, upsetting second-seeded Wisconsin in the second round on March 18, 2007.
If UNLV and Kansas both advance to the next round, it would set up a rematch from the Runnin' Rebels' 2008 trip to the Big Dance. Playing in Omaha, Neb., that year, UNLV defeated Kent State in the 8-9 game before being ousted by the top-seeded Jayhawks two days later. UNLV is 0-4 all-time vs. the Big 12 Conference powerhouse, which this year is the No. 2 overall seed after capturing both the Big 12 Conference regular-season and tournament titles. Along with the NCAA meeting two years ago, the teams faced each other as part of the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass., on Nov. 27, 1998; at Lawrence on Nov. 21, 1997; and in another neutral-site pairing in Pontiac, Mich., on Nov. 22, 1989.
The Runnin' Rebels have never faced Boston (21-13/12-4), which won the American East Conference automatic bid to earn the Terriers their seventh all-time trip to the NCAA tournament.
UNLV boasts an all-time record of 33-16 (.674) in the Big Dance, which ranks eighth all-time for the highest NCAA Tournament winning percentage. The program has made four Final Four appearances (1976-77, 1986-87, 1989-90 and 1990-91) and comes in with an impressive 13-3 all-time record in opening-round matchups.
Kruger, having compiled a 161-70 (.697) record in his seven years at UNLV, will be making his 13th career trip to the NCAAs and holds a 14-12 mark. Kruger is 8-4 in opening-round games, including winning five of his last six.
Kruger is one of only three head men in college basketball history to lead at least four different schools to multiple NCAA appearances (Kansas State 4, Florida 2, Illinois 3 and UNLV 4). He is joined by Jim Harrick (Pepperdine 4, UCLA 8, Rhode Island 2 and Georgia 2) and Tubby Smith (Tulsa 2, Georgia 2, Kentucky 10 and Minnesota 2). In 2007 Kruger became the fourth head coach to take three different teams to the Sweet 16 (joining Rick Pitino, Bill Self and Tubby Smith).