This is the way Illinois assistant coach Jerrance Howard remembers it all going down between Southern Illinois’ staff and the Illini’s when they met up in at last year’s Final Four in Indianapolis.
Southern Illinois assistant coach Brad Corn said, “So when is [Bruce Weber] going to give us that game he promised?”
Howard responded, “It’s not like we’re scared of you.”
From there, the friendly trash-talking took off with both staffs getting involved. While it was all in fun, an actual game did materialize.
On Saturday night, Illinois will face Southern Illinois for the first time since Illini coach Weber left Carbondale for Champaign in 2003 after five seasons with the Salukis.
“Coach Howard, coach [Jay] Price, coach [Gary] Nottingham got together with their guys and started talking trash, and it got further than anticipated,” Weber said. “They actually needed a game, and we had an open date where we needed it. They felt like it was a nice jump for their program. I said to [SIU head coach] Chris [Lowery], ‘If you want to do this, we can do this.’ I said, ‘You make the decision.’ He felt it was good for him and the program, and it created some excitement.”
Weber is still highly regarded at Southern Illinois, where he reignited a program that finished under. 500 each of the previous three years before he arrived. In Weber’s five seasons, the Salukis were 103-54, won two Missouri Valley titles, reached the NCAA Tournament in 2002 and 2003 and made it to the Sweet 16 in 2002.
When Weber departed for Illinois, his former assistant coach Matt Painter took over the program. When Painter left for Purdue, Lowery, another of Weber’s former assistants, took the reins. Lowery is now in his seventh season as head coach.
Just as Weber has struggled with playing Painter’s team from an emotional standpoint, he feels the same facing Lowery for the first time.
“Whether it’s Matt or Chris, when you have worked with someone on your staff, you go through the ups and downs, the many, many hours,” Weber said. “It’s not a fun game for anybody you talk to.”
Lowery and Weber have remained close over the years. They hang out together while recruiting in gyms across the country. They talk to each other about their own teams. Lowery even turned to Weber last year when Southern Illinois struggled and went 15-15.
“Obviously coach is somebody I lean on and talk to regularly, except for this week,” Lowery said. “He was a guy definitely that we talked to in how to deal with certain situations, certain kids.”
It was different for Lowery not be exchanging basketball tips with Weber throughout this week.
“It’s not normal because we talk so much,” Lowery said. “We talk after games. We talked after every exhibition. It’s weird. I see what him and Matt go through. It’s tough for them.”
Weber anticipated seeing an aggressive, defensive-minded Southern Illinois team on Saturday. He expected the Salukis’ wouldn’t be much different to what they used to be when he coached them.
“I think for me I’ve been through this the other way with coach [Gene] Keady being my former mentor, boss, father figure,” Weber said. “That’s the hard thing dealing with playing coach Painter and even now after a few years it’s hard. You prepare like you prepare playing for yourself. That’s what the players talk about. It’s like a mirror image. It’s a tough game.”