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.
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?