Lou Henson figured out how to show allegiance to both New Mexico State and Illinois on Saturday when the teams he coached to a Final Four appearance face each other at the United Center.
“I thought, ‘I have a crimson and (an) orange (jacket),’ and I thought I’d rip them and sew (them together),” Henson said. “And then I thought, ‘That’s dumb. Why don’t you wear one for one half and one for the other.’ I’m going to have my daughter toss a coin to see if I wear orange the first half or the second half.”
Henson expects 25 to 30 family members and 150 of his former players to attend as he will be honored during the game.
Henson, the winningest coach in both schools’ histories, took the “Flyin’ Illini” to the Final Four in 1989 after having led the Aggies to their lone Final Four appearance in 1970. He went 423-224 in 21 seasons in Champaign with 12 NCAA tournament trips. In 16 years covering two stints at New Mexico State, his alma mater, he guided the Aggies to seven NCAA tournaments.
His ties to both schools remain strong. Smiling, he declined to compare the two Final Four teams. Describing Saturday’s meeting, he said, “It will probably be an even game or close to it.”
While he conceded it was “the best thing for us to come to Illinois” in 1975, he has delivered strict instructions to his family members for Saturday’s game.
“I’ve told them, ‘You sit there and you don’t cheer for either team,’ ” Henson said. “Most of them are (rooting for) Illinois, but they know they’ll do what I tell them to do.”
As reporters recorded Henson chatting on the sideline with freshman Mark Smith during an Illinois practice this week, Henson’s walker was nearby. He said he recently injured his hip in a fall and has had issues with his lungs, which he said has resulted in some vocal difficulties. . He received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2003 during his second stint at New Mexico State and retired in 2005.
He said he keeps tabs on both teams. He has watched two Aggies games on television and nearly every Illinois broadcast.
Illinois (8-4, 0-2 Big Ten) was without injured forwards Leron Black (elbow) and Kipper Nichols (foot) in Wednesday night’s 92-45 victory against Longwood. The Illini have lost four of six, and first-year coach Brad Underwood warned that they are moving into the harder part of the schedule with only three more nonconference games before Big Ten play resumes.
New Mexico State (8-2), which also has a first-year coach in Chris Jans, has held all but two opponents to 65 points or fewer.
Henson told Illini fans to have patience as Underwood implements his system.
“It takes time,” Henson said. “They’re getting better. You cannot just push a button and have them play the way you want them to play. He has his own ideas, which are good, but it takes time to implement that.”
John Wooden (UCLA and Indiana State) is the only coach other than Henson with two courts named after him.
On Saturday, the United Center will feel like home.
“It really will be nice,” Henson said. “It’s always good to see your players. You go through battles with them.”