Purdue coach Gene Keady has a phrase for it, for that time in a game when everything clicks into place, when his three senior starters suddenly merge their vast talents and take control. He calls it "the magic level." For the raging Keady and his rugged Boilermakers, the term may seem oddly ethereal, but the magic is real enough that Purdue is conjuring up quite a season, one that has already taken the Boilers to wondrous heights in the polls. However, for soothsayers around West Lafayette, Ind., the question remains: Come the NCAA tournament, will Keady's kids hit the magic level—or will they again do a disappearing act?
But before divining the future, let's get a handle on the present. In many ways, this Boilermaker team is a lot like the others Keady (pronounced KAY-dee) has molded since arriving in West Lafayette in 1980. That means it's solid. In his seven-plus seasons, Keady, who has a 169-67 record at Purdue including two conference titles, has had more Big Ten victories (93) than any other coach. This season, as always, the Boilermakers' offense is ball-controlling, their defense is ball-pressuring and their practices are nose-breaking (well, one of the three busted schnozzes this year was diagnosed as being merely "dislodged").
Purdue, which was 20-2 overall and 9-1 in the conference going into Monday night's game at Iowa, is not only the Big Ten's most aggressive team but also, so far, its best. At the end of last week, during which the Boilers won 72-70 at Michigan State, Purdue was a half game ahead of Michigan, and its toughest remaining matchups were at home.
What sets the current Boilermakers apart from their predecessors is that trio of seniors, who are more fond of the square-jawed Keady than an Indiana schoolboy is of his letter jacket: shooting guard Troy Lewis, small forward Todd Mitchell (known together as T 'n' T) and playmaker Everette Stephens (call him the Fuse). This is a chummy threesome. Lewis and Mitchell room together; Stephens is a steady visitor to their digs and serves as the group's barber. Never has Purdue had such a tightly knit nucleus of talent, and the Stephens-Lewis back-court may be the best in the land. "It's real easy to play with the seniors," says junior forward Kip Jones. "With their ability, the rest of us don't have to do too much."
Take, for instance, Purdue's 91-87 victory at then No. 9 Michigan on Feb. 7. With three minutes left and the Boilermakers leading 84-82, Keady ordered Purdue into its control game. Only the seniors handled the ball, working a flawless weave at midcourt. With four seconds on the shot clock, Stephens whipped a pass to Lewis, who canned a tough turnaround over a Mitchell screen. The trio's combined line for the game: 58 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists. In short, magic level.
Says Stephens, "When Coach called the delay, it was a great feeling." Says Lewis, "When Todd has the ball, I have the same confidence as when I have it. Same with Everette." Says Mitchell, "A lot of times when you have three seniors, one is all into the team and the other two are thinking about the pros. That's going to kill a team. With us, and the way we react to each other, we know we can work things out in the end."
Making up the supporting cast are the Indiana Joneses—Kip, a 6'8" forward, and Tony, a 6'3" sophomore defensive whiz—junior Melvin McCants, a 240-pound trencherman center with a soft shooting touch; and a 6'9", 245-pound moving pick named Steve Scheffler, who bench-presses nearly 400 pounds and says thank you to the refs when they hand him the ball for a free throw.
If all of this is news to you, you're not alone. Purdue's 90 glorious years of hoops—the Boilermakers have the best alltime winning percentage in the Big Ten—have been strangely inconspicuous. Sure, some fans may recall that John Wooden (class of '32) or Rick Mount ('70) played for the Old Gold and Black, but Keady's blue-collar teams of recent years usually draw a blank. Geography is at the root of the problem. When it comes to attracting attention, the crew from West Lafayette gets lost somewhere between Digger Phelps's Notre Dame team in South Bend and Bob Knight's Hoosiers in Bloomington. "I'll probably get hung in effigy for saying this," says Purdue athletic director George King, "but I think we might be better served if our name was Northern Indiana or Southwestern Indiana or Central Indiana."
Then there's Purdue itself, a conservative school of 33,000 that's renowned for engineering and that favors serviceability over style. The world's largest apple-breeding program and a few strong-armed quarterbacks notwithstanding, the closest the university gets to star quality is with its spacemen: 16 astronauts are alumni. Keady has spruced up comfortable Mackey Arena with some gold paint on the sidelines, but the lighting remains so dim that networks are loath to schedule telecasts of Purdue home games. In 1982 Keady got the athletic department to acknowledge the Boilermakers' 17 Big Ten title teams—not with banners flowing from the rafters but with placards on the walls that look like they were made by some outsized label gun. "Change is not Purdue," says assistant coach Bruce Weber.
But the Boilers' biggest obstacle on the road to fame has been the NCAA tournament, where legends are made annually. In four appearances since 1984, Purdue has won one game. The Division I Men's Basketball Committee hasn't exactly been kind. Twice the Boilermakers have opened and lost on opponents' home floors: at Memphis State in '84 and at LSU in '86. Says Keady, "Every year after the pairings are announced, we say, 'Well, they stuck it to us again.' "
Last March, in the final game of the regular season, Purdue needed to win at Michigan for an outright Big Ten championship and a No. 1 seeding in the Midwest Region. The Wolverines ran wild, 104-68, on network TV. The NCAA sent Purdue east to Syracuse, where it flopped against Florida 85-66. Despite the Boilermakers' 25-5 record, the season was seen as a downer in West Lafayette. And, worse, Knight's hated Hoosiers went on to win the national title. But the avenging win in Ann Arbor this season may augur a change of fortune for Purdue. Says Mitchell, "The attitude is, we don't care if we draw North Carolina at Chapel Hill."
Keady, 51, certainly deserves the esteem postseason success would earn him. A former Kansas State and Pittsburgh Steeler running back-wide receiver (he never played hoops after junior college), Keady took the first coaching job he could get after a knee injury ended his playing days—a basketball opening at Beloit (Kans.) High. He eventually graduated to a four-year apprenticeship at Arkansas under Eddie Sutton. Then, after two years as the head coach at Western Kentucky, he was beckoned by Purdue. Al McGuire advised him not to go, because of the Hoosiers' preeminence in Indiana, but Keady enjoys a good windmill tilt. "Our only difficulty is finding guys with courage enough to fight Knight," he says, alluding to Knight's recruiting power. "I think it's such a great challenge, it doesn't bother me. Or I'm too stupid."
Says writer Mark Montieth, an Indiana alumnus who is preparing a book on Purdue's season, "Keady has a knack of being tough on his players without building up resentment, which is hard to do. He's as competitive as Knight; at times he almost wills his team to win."
With his face burning red under his flaps of brown hair, Keady can be a tower of glower at courtside. He has allotted two slots on the bench at Mackey for elbow room. The sport-jacket toss was one of his favorite emotional releases, until the game when his wallet and glasses, tucked in his breast pocket, went flying into the fifth row. Now he usually takes his jacket off and lays it down, firmly. But if Keady intimidates with his temper during a game, he captivates with his forthrightness and humor afterward.
Keady's ways have been successful despite the fact that none of his former Boilers is in the NBA. One key to his success is this stat: In games since the 1982-83 season that have been decided by five points or less and/or in overtime, the Boilermakers are 32-11. That's hard evidence of how rigorously Keady conditions his charges. "It's like digging your own grave and then having to jump in," says Stephens. But even during his most intense moments in practice, Keady can suddenly loose a rolling belly laugh.
And his players like him. Put a pizza and a few pitchers of Mountain Dew in front of the three seniors, and let the Keady appreciation hour begin. "I want the best for him because I know that's the way he feels about me," says Stephens. "If he were on a throne, he'd make sure we were right there next to him." All three are proof of Keady's proudest boast: "We've never had a kid in our program who didn't get better."
Lewis, the state's co-Mr. Basketball (with Delray Brooks) while at Anderson High, has been Keady's only true blue-chip recruit at Purdue. He credits his shooting ability partly to an NBA halftime show, Red on Roundball, he watched while in grade school. "If you're going to be a great shooter," Lewis can still recite, "you need good backspin on the ball, your elbow in and a good follow-through." The 6'4" Lewis, averaging 17.7 points a game at week's end, does Auerbach proud, despite some occasionally bizarre footwork—he missed that show.
The lackadaisical-looking Mitchell, a 6'1", 205-pound former tight end as well as an All-State basketball star from Toledo, Ohio, arrived at Purdue with a shooting range of 10 feet and, according to Lewis, could dribble "only if he was going to the basket to dunk." But he has painstakingly improved his outside game and now blends the in and the out particularly well. "When he makes sharp cuts and is intense, nobody in the country can stop him," says Kip Jones.
Stephens has struggled more than his classmates, but his pro prospects may be the brightest. He's 6'2", with a 36-inch sleeve, and has been the Boilermakers' best shot-blocker since he was a sophomore. At Evanston (Ill.) Township High, he had been a scoring forward; Keady projected him as a point guard. For a while Stephens could remember how to run only two plays; the Boilers had two dozen. As upbeat as he usually seems ("Everette smiles during conditioning," says Scheffler. "That's somewhat aggravating"), Stephens would go back to his room and cry. But he gradually caught on, and now it's the opposition that weeps.
Stephens is not only the Boilermaker barber, he's also their cutup. In the locker room before the aforementioned game against Michigan, he approached Keady in apparent need of a heart-to-heart. Good, thought Keady, a strategy session. "Coach, I've wanted to talk to you about this for two years," Stephens said. "Can my mom sing the national anthem at our last game?"
If that last game is the NCAA final on April 4 at Kansas City, Keady won't care if Stephens cuts her hair while she sings it.