Gene Keady was in his fourth year coaching at Purdue. He inherited a program that went to a Final Four in 1980, but had been gutted by departures. After two years of retooling, Keady returned the Boilermakers to the NCAA Tournament in 1983. The 1984 Purdue basketball team took the next step and won a piece of the Big Ten championship.
The ’84 Boilermakers were anchored by 6’8” senior Jim Rowinski, who averaged 15 points/7 rebounds per game. He was joined up front by Jim Bullock and Mark Atkinson, who did more dirty work on the boards and combined to average ten rebounds a night.
Steve Reid only went 5’9”, but he was one of the top passers in the conference, with five assists per game and he also knocked down 12 points. Ricky Hally, the 6’1” senior rounded out a backcourt that was short, but productive—Hally was also a double-digit scorer.
Purdue was unranked to start the season. Then they won their first five games. Those included a victory over NCAA Tournament-bound Fresno State, and Louisville—fresh off back-to-back Final Four runs and headed back to the Sweet 16 this year. Those wins vaulted Purdue up to #7.
A bad 80-65 loss at Evansville brought the Boilermakers back to earth, but worse was the fact that this came right ahead of games with DePaul and Kentucky, both ranked in the top 5 nationally and each headed for a #1 seed in March. Purdue lost both and fell from the rankings as Big Ten play began.
The conference schedule opened with home games against mediocre competition in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Wins of 84-65 and 72-62 got the Boilermakers going. It set up a road trip to Ohio State. The Buckeyes had gone to the final game of the season in pursuit of the Big Ten title twice in the previous four years and they had a smooth small forward in Tony Campbell. Another double-digit win, this one 63-52, sent a clear message that this Purdue team was ready to contend.
And if that didn’t get the message across, going into Bloomington to face rival Indiana and Bob Knight, winners of three of the last four league titles, surely did. Purdue won 74-66 and briefly cracked the national rankings again at #19.
I say “briefly” because a 76-52 loss at Illinois sent Purdue back to the land of the unranked. Illinois would join Purdue in a race at the top of the conference standings. The fact the Boilermakers could be unranked with three of their four losses to Kentucky, DePaul and Illinois—all of whom would be on the top two seed lines in the NCAAs—indicates a definite lack of respect.
Purdue returned home to face Michigan. The Wolverines were a program on the rise and while they settled for winning the NIT this year, they were coming and led by center Roy Tarpley. Purdue pulled out a 61-57 win. Then they routed Michigan State 72-54.
In the early 1980s, the Big Ten used what can be a called a “reverse schedule” formula and they also used “travel partners”. The reverse schedule meant that after you played your nine conference opponents, you simply reversed course to move back upward. Which meant that the next four games would be against bad teams in Northwestern and Iowa. Purdue won all four games.
The “travel partner” concept meant you were paired with one other team and essentially swapped opponents with them in two-game increments. Purdue’s travel partner was Illinois. What makes this intriguing is that it meant the league’s two best teams would be swapping opponents back and forth down the stretch.
Purdue made their return trips to East Lansing and Ann Arbor. Michigan State was a young team that wouldn’t make postseason play, but they had talented players in point guard Scott Skiles and center Kevin Willis. They could play spoiler and with a 63-53 win over the Boilermakers, that’s exactly what they did.
A tough 67-64 win at Michigan got Purdue back on track, and at 12-2, they were atop the conference standings. But Illinois was tied in the loss column at 11-2, with Indiana lurking at 11-3. And the Illini and Hoosiers were the next two opponents on the docket.
Purdue got a tough 59-55 win over Illinois in Mackey and were poised to seize control of the Big Ten race, especially when Michigan State worked their spoiler magic in Blooming by knocking off Indiana. A win over the Hoosiers on a Wednesday night could all but salt away the league title.
But Indiana wouldn’t go quietly and Purdue played their worst game of the conference schedule in a 78-59 loss. Illinois had new life and the two teams were tied.
Ohio State came in for the final home game of the year and Purdue’s 85-63 win helped relegate the Buckeyes to the NIT. Illinois blasted Indiana to keep the race tied.
The travel partners would go north to end the year, with the opponents being Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Badgers might have been a bad team, but they had a terrific player in Cory Blackwell and the forward led the conference in scoring and rebounding. But the Boilers brought their defense to Madison in a 61-48 win. Illinois crushed Minnesota to hold serve.
Illinois kept it rolling with a blowout win over Wisconsin. Purdue had to win in the Twin Cities to secure their share of the league crown. It didn’t come easy, but with the 63-62 escape they were in the Big Ten throne room for the first time in five years.
Purdue was rewarded with a 3-seed in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament. This was the final year of the 48-team bracket, meaning the top four seeds in each regional got byes.
But another aspect of Purdue’s draw was…well, let’s just say it was a little less than rewarding. They were sent to play in Memphis—against sixth-seeded Memphis.
It was blatantly unfair at the time and looks even worse from the perspective of history when we know that the same thing would happen in 1986—Purdue having to play a lower-seeded team on the opponent’s home floor (11-seed LSU in that case). Gene Keady felt like he was always getting a raw deal from the Selection Committee, and while these complaints are common from all coaches and fan bases, Keady has more ammo than most to prove his case.
The result was a disappointing ending. Purdue shot 28 percent while Memphis’ great center Keith Lee went wild for 29 points/16 rebounds. The final was 66-48.
Home cookin’ may have brought Purdue’s 1984 season to a premature end, but the winning was just getting started with Keady. He won a share of the league title again in 1987. He won it outright in 1988. He won three straight outright crowns in a historic run from 1994-96. The Final Four always eluded him, but Clean Gene could get it done in a conference culture that values regular season titles. The first one came in 1984.