Comparing John and Lou, Part 1: Lou Henson’s First Five Illini Seasons

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Lou Henson’s early days. Photo: Fighting Illini Basketball facebook page

It’s been a long bye week for Illini basketball. Things get going again with the game at Iowa Saturday afternoon. In the lull between games, there’s been speculation about John Groce’s job status (of course). It’s actually been quieter than I expected, but because there haven’t been any games – and partially because spring football has started – there’s not a lot new on the basketball front and Lovie’s guys have rightfully gotten some press. A couple of writers have cited the fact that it took Lou Henson five  years to make his first NCAA tournament with the Illini as a possible reason for AD Josh Whitman to give Groce more time. I thought it would be interesting to dive into the records a bit surrounding the tenures of these two coaches to see what the numbers have to say.

It is, of course, tough to compare the stats straight on, because we have so much more data and ratings indexes for the more recent seasons. In an effort to compare the situations Henson and Groce walked into, I took the numbers for the two seasons prior to their arrivals as well as their first five years. (Groce obviously hasn’t completed his fifth season yet.) The readily attainable stats were team records, but I tried to get a sense of how tough the schedules were based on ranked teams played and beaten. Here goes:

Year Overall Record B10 Rec B10 Rank RT


Highest RT Played Avg Rank of RTs Played Wins vs RTs
73-74 5-18 2-12 10 5 12 15.6 0
74-75 8-18 4-14 9 4 1 (x2) 9 0
75-76 14-13 7-11 7T 5 1 (x2) 10.2 17 Mich
76-77 16-14 8-10 6 6 3 11 18 Pur, @13 MN
77-78 13-14 7-11 7 3 10 11 11 IU
78-79 19-11 7-11 7 6 1 8.5 8 SYR, 7 A&M, 1 MSU
79-80 22-13 8-10 6 9 4 12.6 15 BYU, 12 LOU, 18 IU, 20 IU

RT = Ranked Teams. Wikipedia

A couple of notes: The 73-74 season was coached by Harv Schmidt and the 74-75 season by Gene Bartow. When Lou took over, the Illini had been to one NCAA tournament in the past 23 years (62-63). Also important to note, the NCAA Tournament has expanded fitfully and significantly over the years.  From 1953-1974, the field was between 22 and 25 teams, then expanded to 32 from 75-78, hit 40 in 1979, and jumped to 48 in 1980. The invitation list grew to 52 in 83 and 53 in 84, and by 1985, the field featured the familiar 64-team bracket.  The NCAA Tournament was a more exclusive event in Lou’s early years. His 79-80 team reached the third round of the NIT and likely would have been dancing in the current field of 68.

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Lou, Nick, and Kenny after clinching the Final Four in 1989. Photo: Fighting Illini Basketball facebook page

In looking at the above table, it appears Lou, who guided New Mexico State to the Final Four in 1970, took on a real project with an Illinois program still working its way back from the Slush Fund Scandal of 66-67. His record improves fairly steadily, and although his conference record hovers around the middle third, his squads start beating more ranked teams. I wasn’t much of a basketball fan in 1980, but after a 78-79 season in which the Illini started 15-0, beat the Magic Johnson-led #1 MSU Spartans, and lead the nation in field goal % defense at 40.4, I imagine fans thought Lou had things rolling. Although the Illini didn’t make the NCAA Tournament the following year, they did reach the NIT Final Four. Things were looking up.

Tomorrow: A look at the past seven seasons and John Groce’s first five.


4 thoughts on “Comparing John and Lou, Part 1: Lou Henson’s First Five Illini Seasons

  1. It’s been quite on the Groce front because there is now a broad consensus that he will be fired at the end of the season. Not even much of a debate any more.


  2. Good analytical breakdown Annie, but W/L records aside, Lou was instilling a system. One thing I remember about Lou’s early years and even into the mid 80’s he had a lot of detractors. I was always a Lou fan though, because it was clear to me he was moving us in the right direction.


    • That’s what I thought! Groce’s teams don’t pass the numbers or the eye test. I was watching an IU game the other day, and it looked like they were running a similar (lack of) offense. Mostly guys stood around and waited for someone to go one-on-one. Now IU’s struggling and Crean’s seat is warming. Perhaps offensive and defensive systems are useful after all (duh)! Look at the success Boeheim has had in Cuse with the zone. He’s famous for it, everyone knows it’s coming, but when run well, it’s still super effective.


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