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?"