There isn't much mystique about the team from the only school in the Big Ten conference named after a merchant and land owner. This season the descendants of old John Purdue have shaped dedication, defense and a deliberate offense, along with their characteristic hunger, into one surprising victory after another.
Even after losing their first road game in the conference on Sunday at Minnesota—a 73-72 gem that was decided when a passel of Gophers surrounded Purdue's Incredible Bulk, 6'9", 250-pound center Steve Scheffler, rendering him unable to retrieve Tony Jones's missed jumper in the final moments—the Boilermakers (17-4 overall, 9-2 in the conference) were still making stew of the rest of the Big Ten, which is having another typically tempestuous season. What with Illinois and Iowa all but scratching out each other's eyes, and Minnesota and Ohio State in everybody's hair, and precocious Indiana vying for recognition, and Wisconsin and Northwestern acting like they want to join the Atlantic 10, who would notice that an unlikely cast from Purdue was a full game ahead of the defending national champions from Michigan (18-4, 8-3) and another surprise team, Michigan State (19-5, 8-3), in the conference?
In fact, you couldn't find more improbable prospective champions than the Boilermakers. Scheffler suffers from dyslexia, while their point guard, Jones, is more renowned for flying planes than for slashing through the lanes. But Purdue could prevail, especially if the string of weird events that have already occurred this season at a variety of Big Ten precincts constitute a harbinger:
•Illinois's season continues to be troubled by an NCAA inquiry into the recruitment of LaPhonso Ellis of Notre Dame and Deon Thomas, who hasn't played a Champaign second for the Illini (page 36). Thomas remains at Illinois but was barred by the school from playing basketball this season.
February 19, 1990
Meanwhile, Illini coach Lou Henson has switched from defending his hairdo to defending assistant Jimmy Collins, who is at the center of the investigation. Collins is not allowed to travel for recruiting purposes until further notice. Defense, of course, is where the Illinois duo of Kendall Gill and Steve Bardo never rests, and last Thursday their efforts helped force Minnesota (16-5, 7-4) into missing 28 of 32 attempts from three-point range in the fifth-place Illini's 99-72 thrashing of the Gophers. Naturally, all that victory did was reverse a nearly as embarrassing 91-74 thrashing that Minnesota had laid on Illinois (17-5, 7-5) a month earlier in Minneapolis.
Then on Sunday, in another rerun of the mini's '89 Final Four battle with Michigan—the Wolverines won the first meeting this season, 74-70 at Urbana-Champaign—the Wolverines blasted the Illini in Ann Arbor, 93-79.
And that's not all the bad news for the visitors. This just in: The Illinettes, the school's beauteous pom-pom girls, are in danger of extinction because a university task force has judged them to be "sexist playthings." Sorry, no word yet on the Illinettes' compliance with NCAA plaything regulations.
•Two months after freshman Lawrence Funderburke quit at Indiana—he has emerged at St. Catharine's College in Springfield. Ky.—his name has finally been removed from the Hoosiers' basketball statistics. The line that once read "Funderburke" now says, simply, "Other." Had he remained, Funderburke might now be Indiana's best scorer and rebounder. Oh, by the way, the Hoosiers (15-6, 5-6) are near the bottom in the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding and languishing in sixth place overall.
Before beating last-place Northwestern on Saturday, Indiana had lost four of its last five games. The second division awaits, even as Funderburke's appearances in Bloomington take on the aura of Elvis sightings. Funderburke was rumored to have looked quite nifty the other day when he was spotted on campus in one of those de rigueur haircuts. This one featured a two-word inscription: BOB KNIGHT.
•Quick now, does anybody remember who won the Big Ten last year? Let's see. Michigan won the national title. But the Wolverines finished third in the conference. Illinois only finished second in the league. Indiana? Bingo! Yet the question remains—and nowhere is it more pertinent than in Ann Arbor—who cares?
Bountifully talented Michigan has three potential 1990 NBA first-rounders in point guard Rumeal Robinson and forwards Terry Mills and Loy Vaught (four, if junior forward Sean Higgins skips his final year). And yet the enigmatic Wolverines take too many risks offensively, nap defensively and occasionally humiliate their coach. "They don't worry about bulletproof vests," says one observer, "because they figure to shoot you first."
On the last day of January, however, they drilled coach Steve Fisher, who entered the season with an untarnished 6-0 record, courtesy of last season's storybook journey to the NCAA title. The Wolverines lost a game on Nov. 25, but Fisher's fairy tale didn't end until the last minute of Purdue's humbling 91-73 victory over Michigan, when the Wolves flat quit in front of the home folks, enabling the Boilermakers to roar by for uncontested dunks. The fans booed, an enraged Fisher called timeout and chewed out the team, and Michigan's waiting game was on—waiting for the NCAA tournament again.
As Fisher says, "If you outdiscipline Michigan, we'll get frustrated and impatient. Against Purdue we were like the rat chasing the cheese. We went straight for the trap and got our heads chopped off." Additional trouble: Higgins, the Wolverines' only explosive long-range shooter, will be out three more weeks with a stress fracture of his left foot. And, says Robinson, "Something's missing. We're playing the game the easy way."
•Michigan State was also in a final four last year, the NIT's, so not surprisingly the Spartans' lineup is as anonymous as it is varied. Ken Redfield? The 6'7" senior forward may be the most versatile defender in the conference. He checks everybody from Indiana forward Eric Anderson to Michigan's Robinson. Kirk Manns? The 6'1" senior has attempted and made more three-pointers than anyone else in Big Ten games this season to become an able supporting scorer for...Steve Smith?
You get the picture. Even with all the future pros in the league, the best could be Smith, the most dynamic unknown player in college. "If only Smith were named Lorenzo Baseline and played in the NCAAs," says Steve Kornacki of the Detroit Free Press. Smith, a 6'6" junior, was averaging 18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists at week's end—all team highs—and he dominated State's 64-53 whipping of Purdue, which was then 8-0 in the Big Ten.
These Spartans are coach Jud Heathcote's best team since the 1978-79 Magican State Johnsons won the national championship. But really, how good can they be, having lost to Bowling Green and Illinois-Chicago? That's not the Illini in Chicago, either. The Big Ten's 88-18 record outside the conference—the league's best since 1917-18—should be asterisked for that one alone.
•If Illinois has the best three-man team in the Big Ten (Gill, Bardo and Marcus Liberty) and Michigan the best four, then Minnesota has the best six. That's what every coach in the conference says, at least until the fourth-place Gophers hit the dreaded road and learn once again that the game is played five on five. In two seasons coach Clem Haskins' home-lovin' teams have won exactly two away games in the Big Ten. At Urbana-Champaign last week, guard Melvin Newbern, who had enlivened his Jan. 6 square-off with Gill with 27 points and some choice trash talk, was booed every time he touched the ball. He responded by converting only three of his 13 shots. Guard Kevin Lynch, who had scored 17 points against Illinois in the previous meeting, was 2 for 15. "We shot enough times  for two games," said Haskins, who also must have felt some heat inasmuch as he ripped off his suit jacket and tie in the opening minutes of that defeat, earning two technical fouls.
But on Sunday, back home against Purdue, Haskins was as cool as Richard Coffey, the Gophers' 24-year-old forward and a former paratrooper, must have been years ago when he untangled his leg from a chute line just before hitting the ground on a jump at Fort Benning, Ga. Perched on a stool on the raised floor at Williams Arena, Haskins watched as the Boilermakers erased a 59-49 deficit and took a 72-71 lead after a steal and jam by Jones with 52 seconds left. Newbern came right back with a leaner in the lane that turned out to be the game-winner. Finally, after Jones missed his desperate heave, Scheffler must have been karate-chopped by what seemed like, oh, half the twins in the Twin Cities, and Minnesota still had the only undefeated home record in the conference.
Keady and Haskins are not exactly strangers to each other. When Keady took his first Division I head coaching job, at Western Kentucky in 1978, Haskins—the Hilltoppers' alltime biggest star—was already there as an assistant. The men worked together for two seasons after a rocky beginning, which featured Haskins signing a 6'11" fellow from backwoods Michigan about whom he knew little except his height. "Clem signs the kid, then sits down to watch a pickup game," Keady remembered last week, laughing. "After the first 10 guys get chosen, our kid is still sitting there! Can't play a lick. When Clem got back to campus, he thought I'd kill him."
In 10 years at Purdue, Keady has won three Big Ten championships and 117 Big Ten games with just such players: red-chip guys nobody else wanted. Not that he hasn't tried for the best. Keady's recruiting targets of the past few years have included Anderson (who chose Indiana), Rick Fox (North Carolina), Jerome Harmon (Louisville), Jason Matthews (Pittsburgh), David Booth (DePaul) and Shawn Kemp (Seattle Supersonics, via Kentucky and Trinity Valley Community College). And already the top two high school seniors in Indiana have laughed off the Boilermakers: Guard Damon Bailey has signed with the Hoosiers and 7-foot Eric Montross says he'll choose among Indiana, North Carolina and Michigan. "I don't know why I can't get the great ones," Keady says. "Maybe my scowl on TV turns them off."
Frustration at being No. 3 in his own state—Notre Dame won't even play Purdue: Digger Phelps, witty as ever, claims that "there are no roads between South Bend and West Lafayette"—has led Keady to flirt with other coaching jobs; he almost bolted to Arizona State last March. "But hell, I wouldn't get to play golf for three years," he says. "I'd just be back here recruiting Chicago."
"Year in, year out, Gene does the best job of all of us," says Heathcote. "He takes good players and turns them into great teams."
But how good, really?
Scheffler grew up in Ada, Mich., where he was primed for football. He says he decided to play for the Boilermakers because he "knew their reputation for turning no-talent big men into something." Jones, who upon graduating this spring with a degree in aviation technology, will be licensed to fly a 727, remembers that an Indiana assistant came to watch him once in high school in Fort Wayne and was apparently so unimpressed that no member of the Hoosier staff ever checked him out again. Ryan Berning, Purdue's other senior mainstay, was and is a 6'9" over-achiever who looks terrific in airports.
Fact is, the Boilermakers' most famous player sits at the end of the bench—freshman Rich (son of Rick) Mount, who got in at the end of the Long Beach State game and promptly coughed up the ball, costing Purdue a 70-69 defeat.
Keady cleansed his soul of last year's un-Boilerlike 15-16 record by running off a quartet of bad attitudes—"I just told them they were out of here," he says—and by coaching the gold-medal-winning U.S. team (including Scheffler and Jones) in the World University Games in Germany last summer. It was the first U.S. gold in international competition in three years, and even Scheffler, who once stood up in a Purdue team meeting to question "why it was so important to win," got excited.
"I think I hated basketball as recently as my sophomore year here," says Scheffler, whose bent for philosophy Keady could do without. "When I figured out I had the freedom not to play, I started to love to play."
And no, that's not Scheffler's dyslexia rearing up. "It doesn't affect me on the court," he says of his affliction. "Mostly, I have trouble reading aloud and with memorization. Like, I never mastered the holidays or the order of months. I know when Christmas is, but Thanksgiving? Forget it."
Surely Scheffler knows when the Final Four is played.
"They talk about March Madness," he says. "So it must be sometime then. But when is March? I don't have a clue."
It won't be long before Scheffler and Purdue and several other Big Ten teams should be all clued in about the events of March. And, Steve, this year the Final Four goes into April, too.