Lou Henson is no stranger to the NCAA Final Four. But this year, the Illinois coach found he had some things to learn.
Henson’s New Mexico State Aggies fell just short of the Final Four in 1968 and 1969, thanks largely to a fellow named Lew Alcindor, now the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 1970, the Aggies made it--but again fell to Alcindor’s former team, UCLA, 93-77.
“That was 19 years ago, and there’s no comparison then to what the tournament is now,” said Henson, who takes Illinois (31-4) into the Final Four on Saturday against Big Ten foe Michigan (28-7).
“There was excitement when we first got invited to play in the NCAA tournament in 1966, but the interest is so much more keen and widespread now,” Henson said.
“For example, I’ve always had a policy of trying to accommodate all of you in the media. It’s a chore sometimes, but I always return calls. I want to do that. But I can’t this week. I started out trying to do it . . . and it’s impossible. I have a pile of messages on my desk that I just can’t get to.”
Henson’s 1968 team went 28-3, featuring 13-year pro Sam Lacey and two standout guards, Charley Criss and Jimmy Collins, who now is Henson’s assistant.
“We’ve been exposed to an enormous amount of media already this season,” said Collins. “Back when I played, we never experienced anything like this, not even in the Final Four.
“As I look back, I remember Kareem. I was a sophomore in 1968, and the thing I learned was that it was virtually impossible to shoot a layup. He blocked everything.
“Kareem didn’t warm up with the rest of the team. He just sat there on the bench watching the other team. He was intimidating just sitting there. Then he’d stand up and start to unfold, and we realized how huge he was.
“In 1970, when we were seniors, Lacey sprained his ankle early in the UCLA game, much like Lowell (Hamilton of Illinois) did against Louisville on Friday. Sam got his ankle retaped and came back and played, but we couldn’t stay with UCLA.
“Still, playing in the Final Four was a thrill you can’t measure, and it’s an even bigger thrill now,” Collins said.
Has Henson changed during the last 20 years?
“I think he is more flexible now,” Collins answered. “But, then, I was a lot younger then and maybe I didn’t see everything the way I see it now.”
Collins says the Illini reached the pinnacle this season because they’re “money players.”
“When they need it, they reach down and get it,” he said. “They believe that the second half is theirs. They’re a close-knit group and the staff is a close-knit group, and we all work together. The players have been talking Final Four since October. Personally, I’ve always felt that if they did what the coach told them to do, we could make it.
“I’m not worried about distractions because we’ve had them all year. We’ve had injuries and the players have bounced back. We’ve had family problems and we’ve overcome them. We’ve had heavy media coverage for weeks.”
Henson declared his players off limits to reporters--and even to their families after they reach Seattle late Thursday.
“We’ll do it with police force--whatever it takes,” he said.
He explained that players’ families and friends love and want to help them--and they might even want to help coach.