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"I still can't figure out how we've done so well," says Henson, who wears a bizarre three-tone hair style and a constantly bemused expression. "I just know we work on defense, we have chemistry, and we play hard."
The Illini intensity is such that, Douglas claims, "We scare people. I can see it in their eyes. Teams tighten up and give up the ball because we sustain our defense for 40 minutes. Derek [Harper] taught me this: Think defense to the point where you dictate what the offensive player does."
Douglas stole the ball eight times on Saturday in a dazzling follow-up to Illinois' 16 steals in its 76-52 blowout of Purdue at Champaign in the teams' first meeting, on Jan. 21. "That day we were in cement," Reid says. "They kept stripping us, grabbing every loose ball. Illinois really stuck it in our faces." As the Illini have stuck it to others. Fact is, before Saturday, Illinois was two opponents' buzzer-beaters and one overtime loss away from an undefeated season.
The Boilermakers overcame their loss of Cross by turning to an erstwhile skinny walk-on from Long Island who found love, happiness and his destiny in the weight room and pumped himself up to...Super Row, the Polish Prince of Pecs. As that wimpy, sand-in-the-face high school junior, Rowinski was unceremoniously cut from the Syosset varsity. He went to West Lafayette mainly because his father was a Purdue alumnus and his sister, Sue, an Olympic aspirant in rowing, was already enrolled there. For two years Rowinski practiced with the scrubs. Then in 1981-82 he got into a few games, only to sustain a stress fracture in his left leg. He started lifting weights to stifle the boredom of a recuperative redshirt season. All the while Row had been growing, but now he started bulging. Rippling, actually.
Last season he saw limited action behind Cross, but when this season began—whoosh! a phone booth, please—Super Row emerged to plunder both Northeastern, the sleeper from New England that at week's end was 21-4, and home-standing Fresno State in something called the Sun-Met Classic. Those two victories, paired with the next two—over Louisville and MAC leader Miami of Ohio—sent Purdue out of the box in a hurry: 4-0 over opponents who have since won a combined 80 games.
"I like character guys," says Keady, now in his fourth season at Purdue, after spending two years at Western Kentucky. 'You got to be a character guy to play for me." The Big Ten champions-in-waiting are slow, overachieving and a mishmash of transfers, no-names and even one Mormon church elder, Curt Clawson, who came to Purdue "because I wanted to beat Bobby Knight." But they do have the monster walk-on, Rowinski, and now they are in command of their own fate.
"I really can't see the light at the end of the tunnel yet," said Keady on Saturday, "but our fans sure can smell it." Given Rowinski's bone-crushing buckets as well as his popping pecs, Purdue fans can probably hear the light as well.