Illinois basketball was on hard times when Lou Henson took over in 1976. The Illini hadn’t made the Final Four since 1952 and had only been sporadically good in the ensuing quarter century, bottoming out at 13-36 over the final two years before Henson arrived in Champaign. By 1979, Henson had won 19 games. By 1981 he was in the NCAA Tournament. And the 1984 Illinois basketball team enjoyed a breakthrough year with a Big Ten championship and nearly made it back to the Final Four.
The Illini had good balance throughout the lineup. Power forward Efrem Winters led the way with a per-game average of 15 points/7 rebounds. He was joined up front by 6’9” center George Montgomery, who averaged 10/7.
But Illinois wasn’t a big team, so they had to rely on the backcourt and the three-guard combo Henson had was excellent. Bruce Douglas could both score and pass, averaging 13 points/4 rebounds/6 assists. Doug Altenberger was solid on the wings with 11 ppg. Quinn Richardson was the only starter who didn’t average double figures, but the 5’11” senior was a valuable floor leader and his 59% shooting from the floor showed what would happen if you backed off him defensively.
Respect was still a hard thing to come by in Champaign and Illinois was unranked when the season began just after Thanksgiving. They got a nice 70-53 win over Loyola-Illinois in a holiday tournament. The Ramblers were a good team who were just a year away from making the NCAA Sweet 16. The two teams played again in Champaign on December 12 with Illinois again winning, this time 74-69.
Missouri was mediocre, but a 66-60 win in this rivalry game is always satisfying for the Illinois program. And on Christmas Eve they got a crack at #2-ranked Kentucky. The Wildcats came to Champaign and won 56-54, but the Illini showed they could compete with the nation’s best. And they hadn’t seen the last of Big Blue.
Illinois was catching some attention nationally and ranked at #20 when Big Ten play began just after the New Year. They opened up by blasting mediocre Minnesota 80-53. A road trip to Wisconsin was a little tougher. The Badgers weren’t good, but they had a forward in Cory Blackwell who wound up leading the conference in both scoring and rebounding. The Illini escaped Madison with a 63-62 win.
Thus began a run of three key games against Indiana, Ohio State and Purdue. The Hoosiers had won three of the last four Big Ten championships and were led by sharpshooting freshman Steve Alford. The Buckeyes had gone to the very end of the season chasing two of those league titles and had a smooth small forward in Tony Campbell who could fill up the bucket. And the Boilermakers were a consistent contender under the leadership of Gene Keady.
The stretch started with a tough overtime loss to Indiana, but the 73-68 defeat was in Bloomington. And it was followed by a narrow 55-53 survival at Ohio State and then a comfortable 76-52 blasting of Purdue. At 4-1 in the conference, Illinois was positioned to make a run.
They hosted Michigan State and Michigan in succession. The Spartans were too young to seriously win this year, but with Scott Skiles at the point and big Kevin Willis down low, they were still a threat in any one-game shot. Illinois won 46-40. The Wolverines were starting to come on strong and would end up winning the NIT behind center Roy Tarpley. Illinois beat them 75-66.
In the early 1980s, the Big Ten used what can be called a “reverse scheduling” formula. That is, you played all nine of your conference opponents. Then you simply reversed order and went back through them. Which meant that the next four games would be against Iowa and Northwestern. Neither team was very good and Illinois cashed in, ripping off four straight wins.
A tough 62-60 loss at Ann Arbor followed, but the trip to East Lansing went much better. Illinois routed Michigan State 70-53 and moved to 11-2 in the conference. They were tied in the loss column with league leader Purdue, who was 12-2. Indiana was nipping at the heels with an 11-3 league mark. And the reverse schedule formula meant the conference season would end as it had begun.
That meant a Saturday trip to West Lafayette with first place on the line. And when Illinois took a 59-55 loss to Purdue, their Big Ten championship hopes were in serious jeopardy.
If there was any consolation, it was that Indiana had lost at home to Michigan State. That proved even more significant four days later when the Hoosiers gave Illinois what they needed. IU went into Purdue and routed the Boilermakers 78-59. Illinois and Purdue were back to being tied.
A 73-58 home win over Ohio State, who would settle for the NIT this season, got Illinois winning again. It sent up a visit from Indiana on the first Sunday afternoon in March. The Illini, showing little gratitude for the help in the league race, but plenty of hunger for the opportunity, delivered a 70-53 beatdown. On that same day, Purdue blew out Ohio State. In the final week of the season, there was no question the race was down to the Illini and Boilermakers and they were in a dead heat.
Illinois had to go up to Minnesota and they brought their defense with them, grinding out a 53-41 win. The win answered Purdue’s victory at Wisconsin two days earlier.
On the final Saturday, Illinois hosted Wisconsin and it turned into one long party. The easy 81-57 rout gave the Illini a piece of the Big Ten championship. The nearly got the whole thing—Purdue barely survived its trip to Minneapolis, escaping with a 63-62 win. But with a 15-3 conference record, no one in Illinois was going to complain about sharing the title.
They were rewarded with a #2 seed in the Mideast Regional (the forerunner of today’s South Regional) and sent to play in Milwaukee.
I had the good fortune to be in the stands at Milwaukee’s old MECCA for the games that went on Friday/Sunday. This was the last year of the 48-team NCAA bracket, where the top four seeds in each regional got a bye, so Illinois didn’t play on Friday. On Sunday, they drew Villanova in the Round of 32.
The Wildcats were just a year away from a national championship and they had the players who keyed that memorable run. Notably, center Ed Pinckney was a handful, getting 24 points/14 rebounds against Illinois, while Dwayne McClain added 15.
But Illinois brought their defense, holding Villanova to 38% shooting. And the Illini brought their balance. Douglas, Altenberger, Richardson and Winters all scored between 11-13 points. Winters hit the glass for 14 rebounds. Douglas dished eight assists. The game was good, but Illinois stayed in control for a 64-56 win.
It was on to Lexington and the fabled Rupp Arena for the regionals. Kentucky was looming over the proceedings as the 1-seed and the host, but Illinois first had to deal with Maryland. This was a talented Terps team led by Lenny Bias. In an excellent college basketball game, the Illini answered by shooting 59 percent. All five starters landed between 11-15 points. The ball movement was impeccable, with Douglas again handing out eight assists and Richardson adding six more. Illinois won it 72-70.
The home crowd had pushed Kentucky by Louisville in the other regional semi and it set up a rematch of the Christmas Eve game, this time with a Final Four berth on the line. This game would be worthy of the stakes, but not without controversy.
Richardson was brilliant with 16 points on 8-for-11 shooting, but Illinois only shot 46 percent as a team. They were already woefully undersized, with Kentucky having a huge frontline led by Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin. The Wildcats shot 55 percent and that kind of edge was going to be tough to overcome.
Especially when the officiating would be called into question by neutral observers. Kentucky shot 17 free throws to Illinois’ 9. The overall foul total was pretty even, but at one point in the second half, the Illini had been whistled for ten fouls to just two for the ‘Cats. Only when Kentucky began wasting fouls down the stretch did the overall number come to even.
And there was a specific call with 0:16 left that stuck in Henson’s craw. Kentucky led 52-50, but point guard Dicky Beal appeared to travel. There was no call. Illinois had to foul, and Beal hit the free throws that sealed the 54-51 win.
The loss was a tough pill to swallow, but the 1984 season was still a special one in Champaign. It took a few more tries to finally get through to the Final Four. In 1989, the program got there. And the 1984 still holds a special place as Lou Henson’s only Big Ten championship year in his successful run at Illinois.