Gene Keady was on a roll at Purdue. The head coach had made the NCAA Tournament for four straight years coming into the 1986-87 college basketball season. That run included a share of the Big Ten title in 1984. It was time to take the next step—win an outright conference championship and get past the first weekend of March Madness. The 1987 Purdue basketball team went right to the end of the regular season positioned to do just that before a hard fall left them starting over again.
Purdue was still a reasonably young team in 1987 with Doug Lee as the only notable senior. Lee was a wingman who knocked down 10ppg. The heart of the team was its trio of juniors, Troy Lewis and Everette Stephens in the backcourt and Todd Mitchell at the power forward spot.
Lewis averaged 19ppg. Stephens added 12 a night and was one of the top passers in the conference from the point guard position. Mitchell was good for 16 points/7 rebounds per night. To this group was added a talented sophomore forward in Melvin McCants, who went for 12/6.
The lack of a good senior class in an era when players mostly finished their four-year run, even at top programs, was a downside. But that didn’t temper expectations in West Lafayette where Purdue was ranked #4 in the preseason polls. And these Boilermakers would show the optimism was justified.
They went 7-1 through the December non-conference schedule. It included a 77-61 win over NCAA Tournament-bound Wichita State. The only loss, a 94-81 defeat to North Carolina was no shame. It happened on a neutral floor and this was a vintage Tar Heel team that would end up a #1 seed in March.
It was time to start Big Ten play and even by the conference’s traditionally lofty standards, 1987 was a stacked year. Indiana had sharpshooting guard Steve Alford and had supplemented the lineup with junior college transfers in Keith Smart for the backcourt and Dean Garrett up front. Illinois had an excellent combo of point guard Tony Wysinger and post man Ken Norman. Iowa, under the coaching of Dr. Tom Davis, was transforming the conference with its up-tempo style.
These four teams would form the heart of the conference race, but they certainly weren’t the whole story. Michigan and Ohio State each went to the NCAA Tournament themselves. The Wolverines were the two-time defending conference champs and with Gary Grant and Glen Rice, they had electric talent. The Buckeyes were coached by Gary Williams and led by the outstanding Dennis Hopson, who merely poured in 29ppg, won league MVP honors and became an NBA lottery pick.
In short, there was little room for error. Even mediocre Michigan State, who came to West Lafayette to start Big Ten play, had a point guard in Darryl Johnston who exploded for 20-plus per game. The Boilermakers were still able to get an 87-72 win. They followed it up with an 89-77 victory over Michigan and the league schedule was off and running.
The soft part of the schedule was the trio of Northwestern, Minnesota and Wisconsin and Purdue ripped through all three for wins. That set up a date with Louisville, the defending national champs, but having a rough go of it in ‘87. On the January Sunday when most of America was focused on the NFC & AFC Championship Games, the Boilermakers delivered an 88-73 win.
ESPN’s weeknight telecasts were just coming into vogue and the showcase was Big Monday. The Big Ten was a part of this, typically playing the second game of the nationally televised doubleheader. Iowa’s visit to Mackey Arena was the showcase on January 19. And it would be Purdue’s first conference loss, a tough 70-67 defeat.
There was no time to lick wounds, not with Illinois coming into town next. Purdue pulled out an 87-86 thriller. They went to Ohio State and won another hair-raising finish, 75-73. It set up another showdown game, this one at Indiana. Purdue lost 88-77.
After home wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern, the Boilermakers stood at 9-2 in the conference. They were a game back of 10-1 Indiana, but still had the Hoosiers coming to Mackey later in February. Iowa was at 8-2, while Illinois gave chase at 9-3.
A brutal stretch of three road games awaited. It would begin at Iowa and end with a visit to Illinois. That was tough enough, but it also made a visit to Minnesota in-between a potential trap spot. Purdue’s season had reached a crucial test.
The Boilermakers passed the test with flying colors. They got an 80-73 win in Iowa City, then avoided the letdown with an eight-point win over the Gophers. Another one-point win over the Illini, this one 76-75, kept them within a game of Indiana and narrowed the conference race to the two rivals.
February 26, a Thursday night, saw Bob Knight bring his Hoosiers to West Lafayette. They were fresh off a win over Iowa and were looking to put a stranglehold on the league. Instead, Purdue answered with a solid 75-64 win. The weekend got even better. Purdue took care of its home floor with a 14-point win over Ohio State while Indiana lost by a bucket in Champaign.
We were going into the final week of the season and Purdue had sole possession of first place. They were ranked #3 in the country. It was all right there for them—the outright conference championship and a virtually certain #1 seed in the Midwest Regional, which would just as surely have placed them in Indianapolis for the first weekend.
It would have to be done on the road though and Purdue met the first challenge in East Lansing with a 69-59 win that locked up a share of the Big Ten crown.
But with everything in their grasp, the season took an improbable turn. Purdue went into Ann Arbor and played what was probably its worst game of Gene Keady’s entire coaching tenure (at least when compared to expectations). They were pounded 104-68.
Indiana was able to get a piece of the league title and the Selection Committee handed the Hoosiers the Midwest’s top line and the spot in Indianapolis. Purdue tumbled all the way to a 3-seed and was sent east to play in Syracuse.
It was a harsh penalty for one poor performance after a season of achievement. If Keady and Purdue fans took a dim view of the Selection Committee, they had good reason. In 1984 and 1986, the Boilermakers had to play true road games in the first weekend against teams they were seeded higher than. This year wasn’t that bad, but it was difficult to see why Iowa would get a 2-seed after finishing behind Purdue in the standings.
Even so, the Boilermakers were still the chalk to survive the first two rounds, something Keady had not yet done. But they were reeling. They didn’t play well defensively and needed 60 second-half points to get past Northeastern 104-95.
The Round of 32 opponent would be Florida. The Gators had talent. Guard Vernon Maxwell would one day be a starter on an NBA championship team in Houston. Purdue again did not play well; Maxwell went for 24 points and Florida pulled away in the second half to an 85-66 win.
It was a tough ending to a season that deserves to be remembered for everything that was achieved prior to the final regular season game. Despite being a young team, Purdue was a co-champ in one of the best years the Big Ten has ever had (Iowa reached the Elite Eight and Indiana won the national championship). And they laid the groundwork for 1988, when they finally won the outright conference title and reached the Sweet 16.