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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.' "