Meanwhile, Henson and his staff started making the rounds of Illinois high schools, visiting 400 in the first year alone. "To be good we don't need all the players in the state, just some of them," Henson says. "Marquette won the national championship in 1977 with Bo Ellis and Jerome Whitehead, two Chicagoans. We need to get players like that to stay home."
Henson's first season was doubly successful because not only did he have a winning record at 14-13, but he also signed three of Illinois' all-state players, Steve Lanter, Levi Cobb and Rob Judson. Lanter's sister Sheri, who is now an Illinois cheerleader, recalls the reaction back home in Belleville when Steve made his decision: "People said, 'Why are you going to play for the Illini? They're nothing.' "
Derek Holcomb, a 6'11" all-state player, thought so, too. He turned Henson down that year and signed with Indiana, the reigning national champion. "I wanted to be a winner," he says. "Illinois didn't get my attention because it was a loser. Indiana was the place to go." But after one season in Bloomington, Holcomb decided that Indiana wasn't the place to be. He transferred to Illinois and has become the rebounding and defensive mainstay of the team. The leading offensive players are two more all-staters, sophomores Mark Smith and Eddie Johnson.
Before the season began, Illinois appeared to be no better than fifth in the league. Solid defense and unselfish offense gave the Illini seven early wins, but most observers thought they would get their comeuppance in the Kentucky Invitational. Instead they won, beating Syracuse and Texas A&M. Then they won a tournament in Alaska and two conference games, at Indiana and Northwestern, and suddenly they were the No. 4 team in the country. But not even Henson professes to know how good the Illini are. "I never expected anything like this," he says. "I didn't think we could contend for the title until next year. I even thought we might be a little behind schedule."
The only schedule that meant anything last week was the one that showed Michigan State would arrive in Champaign on Wednesday. Now here at last was something for Illinois fans to get really excited about. Not only did their team have a chance to beat the nation's No. 1 club, but they also had an opportunity to become No. 1 themselves. When the Illini ran onto the floor, they were greeted by the largest crowd in the 16-year history of Assembly Hall (16,209), and only the second sellout in the last seven years. Everybody, Governor Jim Thompson included, was wearing orange or waving orange or, at the very least, thinking orange. The team was apparently so overcome by excitement that it almost forgot how to play. While Illinois was missing eight of its first 13 shots, Michigan State was hitting 11 of 12 to take a 22-11 lead 8½ minutes into the game. "Right then, I imagine a lot of people were saying. 'Well, it was nice while it lasted,' " Henson says.
After a time-out, Illinois settled down and went on a 21-6 tear to lead by four at the half. The Illini trailed only twice after that—by only a point both times—and there were five ties. Eddie Johnson broke the last of them with three seconds left by sinking an 18-foot jumper from the baseline. The fans went crazy, but as State's Earvin Johnson noted, "At 15-0. who wouldn't? It's the same for them this year as it was for us last year when we surprised everyone by winning the title."
To remain No. 1—a position the Illini held in most fans' minds, if not in the actual ratings, because balloting for this week's ranking wouldn't be held for three more days—Illinois still had to beat Ohio State on Saturday. A team made up largely of sophomores and juniors, the Buckeyes had lost to Butler and Toledo in their first three games, but they were now 8-4 and, according to Coach Eldon Miller, showing more maturity and patience with every outing. What they weren't showing, however, was much balance. Junior Guard Kelvin Ransey, who is tied for second among Big Ten scorers with a 23.0 average, and 6'11" sophomore Center Herb Williams, the league's leading rebounder, give them a devastating one-two punch, but those were the only two Buckeyes scoring in double figures. On Thursday, when Ohio State blew a 16-point second-half lead against a strong Iowa team before winning in the last 2½ minutes, Ransey and Williams had combined for 40 points.
Obviously, if Illinois could stop either of them, it would win easily. At least it seemed that way at the half, because Ransey had four points, Williams 16, and the Illini led by eight. Amazingly, the usually unstoppable Ransey never did get unpacked, finishing with 11 points and six turnovers, but Ohio State came back to send the game into overtime at 60-all, thanks to three crucial plays by sophomore Carter Scott (see cover). In the last 65 seconds, he prevented one basket by blocking a layup, scored the tying bucket with a drive through the middle and caused a jump ball—and controlled the ensuing tip—in the Illinois half of the floor.
The overtime was no contest. Illinois committed two turnovers and missed eight straight shots before making its first field goal with 14 seconds left. Ohio State scored seven of its nine points at the foul line, including two after time had expired, to win the game.
Henson was upset that Ohio State had received 38 opportunities at the foul line and made 25, while his team—the home team, mind you—had gotten only eight and made four. Miller explained it had been his game plan to take the ball inside in hopes of drawing fouls. Indeed, nine of Williams' season-high 29 points and eight of Scott's 16 came at the free-throw line.