A rising star in college basketball after winning 123 games in six years with two NCAA Tournament appearances at Illinois State, coach Kevin Stallings pulled a shocker by leaving for Vanderbilt, not the easiest place to win, after turning down Tennessee two years earlier.

A rising star in college basketball after winning 123 games in six years with two NCAA Tournament appearances at Illinois State, coach Kevin Stallings pulled a shocker by leaving for Vanderbilt, not the easiest place to win, after turning down Tennessee two years earlier.

 A decade later, he's even surprised himself.

 "This is my 10th year here, and quite frankly, I didn't think I'd be here 10 years,'' Stallings said.

 After guiding Vanderbilt to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and two Sweet 16 berths in the last five years, Stallings leads Vanderbilt against visiting Illinois on Thursday in a key early test for both teams. It's also the first meeting in almost 10 years between between Stallings and Illini coach Bruce Weber, an assistant coach at Purdue when Stallings was a player and an assistant there.

 Weber found his way back to the Big Ten Conference after five years at Southern Illinois. Stallings, a prep star under legendary coach Vergil Fletcher at Collinsville, remained at Vanderbilt. His name was mentioned in coaching searches at Michigan and Ohio State, and Stallings reportedly turned down an offer to coach at Iowa in 2007.

 "Perspective continues to change as you get older,'' Stallings said. "I really enjoy Nashville and Vanderbilt. I enjoy the guys I coach here and the families I recruit from. Bruce and I have very different jobs because of some of the things he has to put up with in recruiting. He's played for a national championship, and I haven't. There might be a trade off there.

 "Nevertheless, the quality of life here is unbelievable, and the quality of kids I coach is terrific.''

 For Stallings, what worked at Illinois State works at Vanderbilt. Tom Richardson, who filled the vacancy at Illinois State created by Stallings' departure, serves as an assistant with former Redbirds star Dan Muller and former Illinois State assistant King Rice.

 Vanderbilt won 48 games over the last two seasons but undergoes a transition this season after losing three starters, including SEC player of the Year Shan Foster, from a team that finished 26-8 after an upset loss to Siena in the NCAA Tournament's first round as a No. 4 seed last March. Vanderbilt has no seniors and only two juniors, and the star is sophomore center A.J. Ogilvy.

 The Australian, who averaged 17 points and 6.7 rebounds last season, scored 12 points in the season-opening 74-48 win over Morehead State on Sunday.

 "He's a natural scorer,'' said Illini sophomore center Mike Tisdale. "Every time he touches the ball, he's looking to score. He's got a good shot and good post moves, and he's pretty mobile for his size.''

 Point guard Jermaine Beal also returned as a starter. Forward Jeffery Taylor, who led Vanderbilt with 16 points in the opener, was one of three freshmen to score in double figures in the debut. Stallings billed the game against the Illini as the first big challenge in his team's second game.

 Obviously, Illinois must answer questions inside while playing on the road for the first time in quirky Memorial Gymnasium, where the team benches are on the opposite baselines and the court is raised. The game is a sellout.

 "The test is how much of a test we will give them when we're going on the road for the first time and they have an established big man,'' Weber said. "The question is how their young team will react to a big game home or away. Our question is how we're going to play on the road in a big game. We've got two different scenarios.''

 It's an interesting matchup, considering friends usually steer clear of each other in non-conference play. Stallings said he doesn't "have a better friend in coaching'' than Weber, who remembered coaching Stallings, working together and even spending time away from basketball with everything from family vacations to the tennis courts.

 "There was nothing athletically that he beat me in very often,'' Stallings said.

 Weber, whose Southern Illinois team beat Stallings and Illinois State twice in the 1998-99 season, gets another shot Thursday against his old friend.

 John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.

Illinois (2-0) vs. Vanderbilt (1-0)

7 p.m., Memorial Gymnasium (14,316), Nashville, Tenn., (FOX Midwest, Illini Sports Network)

ILLINOIS (2-0)   ppg     rpg

C Mike Tisdale So. 7-1 7.0 4.5

F Mike Davis So. 6-9 13.0 9.5

G Calvin Brock Sr. 6-5 1.5 2.0

G Trent Meacham Sr. 6-2 16.0 3.0

G Chester Frazier Sr. 6-2 12.0 5.0

VANDERBILT (1-0)     ppg   rpg

C A.J. Ogilvy So. 6-11 12.0 2.0

F Festus Ezeli Fr. 6-11 2.0 3.0

F Jeffery Taylor Fr. 6-7 16.0 5.0

G Jermaine Beal Jr. 6-3 10.0 1.0

G George Drake Jr. 6-4 5.0 2.0

Noteworthy: Illinois owns a 4-3 edge in the series, but the teams haven't met since Vanderbilt scored an 85-68 win in the NCAA Tournament second round in 1993. Illinois is 1-1 against Vanderbilt in Memorial Gymnasium, including a 69-55 win on Dec. 6, 1983, in the most recent game there. . . Illini sophomore guard Demetri McCamey averaged 12 points and three assists despite not starting in the first two games. . . Freshmen reserves Brad Tinsely (12) and Lance Goulbourne (11) also scored in double figures in the Commodores' opener. . . Vanderbilt was picked to finish fourth in the SEC East Division. . .

Key for Illini: The big men have to come up big against Ogilvy.

Key for Commodores: Jump on the Illini early and see if they can handle it.

Key quote: "(Ogilvy) is one of the better big men around the country. There's talk of being an NBA player, maybe leaving early. We've got our hands full with that.'' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber.

Betting line:

Prediction: Vanderbilt 72, Illinois 63