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Former Illinois, New Mexico St coach Lou Henson dies at 88

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Lou Henson, the plain-spoken coach who took New Mexico State and Illinois to the Final Four during a 21-year career that included nearly 800 victories and a feud with fellow Big Ten coach Bob Knight, has died. He was 88.

Henson died Saturday at his home in Champaign and he was buried in a private service Wednesday, the Illinois athletic department said.

Henson left the game as the winningest coach at both Illinois and New Mexico State, and still ranks fifth all-time among Big Ten coaches in total wins (423) and conference wins (214). In 2015, he was named to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor his fans thought might never come.

“I just think that Lou is probably the most underrated coach in college basketball,” former Illinois and pro player Stephen Bardo said.

Henson stressed preparation and discipline. But his best team, the 1988-89 Flyin’ Illini that reached the NCAA semifinals, won with a fluid mix of athleticism and style.

Henson was gracious and gregarious, yet also serious. But he made headlines for his contentious dispute with Indiana’s Knight, while his comb-over hair style, the Lou-Do, served as a source of amusement.

And for years after Henson left the sidelines, he and his wife, Mary, were widely loved, unofficial ambassadors for both Illinois and New Mexico State and the towns where they’re located, Champaign, Illinois, and Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“Who doesn’t love Lou? Seriously – who doesn’t love him?” said former NBA player Reggie Theus, who succeeded Henson at New Mexico State and considered him a mentor. “Because he’s genuine. There’s no ego there.”

Illinois coach Brad Underwood called Henson’s death “a sad day for the Illinois basketball family and Illini nation.”

“His achievements are legendary, but what is immeasurable are the countless lives he impacted during his 21 years in Champaign and 41 years in coaching,” Underwood said. “My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Mary and their family, and the hundreds of players who were fortunate enough to be led by such a tremendous man and coach. Rest in peace to the best to ever wear the orange jacket; we’ll miss you, coach.”

Henson, a native of Okay, Oklahoma, played college basketball at New Mexico State in the early 1950s. After coaching at Las Cruces High School – where he won three state titles – and Hardin-Simmons University in Texas, Henson took over at New Mexico State in 1966.

His Aggies made the NCAA Tournament in each of his first five seasons, including a Final Four appearance in 1970.

Wins at New Mexico State led Henson to Illinois in 1975, where he took over a program that had struggled since an NCAA scandal in the 1960s.

He wanted to build with players from Illinois, and particularly talent-rich Chicago, but warned that might be a slow process.

“We’re going to try to build relations in our state,” he said during an interview years later. “And we did.”

Henson had to wait for his fifth Illini team to win 20 games, a benchmark Bardo said Henson set for all his teams. Henson took Illinois to the NCAA Tournament in his sixth season, in 1980-81.

By the time Bardo and the rest of the Flyin’ Illini were on campus, the talent pipeline Henson set out to build – and one Illinois coaches since have hoped to match – was flowing. Nine Henson teams made it to the NCAA Tournament between 1981 and 1990.

Bardo said it’s unlikely a newly hired coach would now get the kind of grace period Henson needed.

“Just because the way that college athletics has gone, there’ so much pressure on coaches to produce, now,” said Bardo, who works as a TV commentator.

The Flyin’ Illini were Henson’s best team.

Led by Bardo, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson, Illinois reached the Final Four with 31 wins before finally losing to Michigan by two points.

“We always knew that if we went to Champaign and we weren’t prepared, we’d get beat,” said former Purdue coach Gene Keady, whose team lost by 27 points at Illinois that season.

A dark period for both Henson and his team was just ahead.

In 1990, the NCAA put Illinois on probation for rules violations. Among them were improper contacts with recruits by longtime Henson assistant Jimmy Collins and car loans made to three players without requiring full credit information by a booster who owned a car dealership.

“A week from today, we probably would be signing five players,” Henson said as the NCAA sanctions were announced in November 1990, just before signing day. “Now we have to tell these young men and their parents” that some won’t be getting scholarships.

The school was cleared of more serious allegations that, among other things, Collins offered Chicago prospect eventual Illinois star Deon Thomas $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer to play at Illinois. The allegation, made by then-Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl, set off the NCAA investigation and led Illinois fans to despise Pearl for decades.

The Illini struggled the next season. Then the rivalry with Knight boiled over. After Knight refused a post-game handshake and said something to Henson outside the teams’ locker rooms in 1991, Henson called the Indiana coach “a classic bully.”

Henson left Illinois in 1996, never getting the Illini back to his own 20-win benchmark after the NCAA probation. He returned to New Mexico State for another seven seasons, winning the Big West in 1999 and advancing once more to the NCAA Tournament.

He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2003 and coached for a time from a wheelchair on the sidelines. But Henson left coaching for good the following season, finishing with a 779-412 record.

Henson dealt with health concerns related to his illness and its treatment for the rest of his life, but he also swam and golfed regularly. He routinely practiced chips in his Champaign front yard before dawn.

Henson also remained a presence on both Illinois’ and New Mexico State’s campuses and, according to Theus, a quiet voice of authority at the latter.

“Anything that went on in our basketball program – if Lou agreed, nobody ever questioned what I did,” Theus said.

In Champaign, Bardo said, Henson could have been elected mayor: “Everybody has a story about coming across Lou Henson and him making them feel like they’re the only person in the room.”.

Henson is survived by his wife, Mary, and daughters Lisa, Lori and Leigh Anne. A son, 35-year-old Lou Henson Jr., died in a 1992 car accident.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.