Gene Keady inherited a Purdue basketball program that reached the 1980 Final Four and kept the tradition of success going in West Lafayette. Over the ensuing seven years, in a competitive era of Big Ten basketball, Keady’s teams made the NCAA Tournament every year and won a piece of two Big Ten championships. But success in March was missing.
Keady had never made it out of the first weekend. The 1988 Purdue basketball team was Keady’s best yet and finally pushed him to the regionals…but the ending would still be one of the more heartbreaking in a program that has a long history of crushing losses in March.
The ending to the 1987 season had been particularly galling. An excellent team, Purdue reached the final game of the regular season with a share of the Big Ten crown in hand and in line for a #1 seed in the Midwest Regional, which would place them in Indianapolis.
But they were blown out at Michigan in the finale. The result was Indiana sharing the conference championship, getting the 1-seed and placement in Indy and eventually winning the national title. Meanwhile, Purdue went East and lost in the Round of 32.
So Purdue convened for the 1988 season with their key players intact and having something to prove. They were led by three seniors. Troy Lewis was the two-guard and the leading scorer at 18ppg, also averaging five rebounds and five assists a night. Everette Stephens ran the floor show, with six assists per game and also chipped in double-digit scoring. Todd Mitchell was a tough power forward, good for 16 points/6 rebounds a night.
This core of senior talent was not alone. Melvin McCants was a junior center that showed flashes of dominance and averaged 14/5. Tony Jones was a valuable ball-handler off the bench and kicked in four assists per game. Purdue had talent, experience and cohesion. Expectations were appropriately high and they started the season ranked #2 in the country.
The start to the season was shaky. Purdue lost at home to Iowa State 104-96 and the Cyclones were a team that would barely scrape into the NCAA Tournament. Wins over Illinois State and Wichita State, neither of whom were noteworthy in 1988, were less than inspiring.
Then on December 20, Purdue hosted a good Kansas State team, with future Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond in tow and blasted the Wildcats 101-72. They concluded the non-conference schedule at 10-1 and were rolling again. K-State went to lick its wounds and wait for another day.
Purdue started Big Ten play and immediately racked up six straight wins. They won by 13 at Illinois, who ended up as a 3-seed in the NCAAs. They nipped a good Iowa team at home. And after the 6-0 start in conference, the Boilers ventured out to play Louisville. The Cardinals were two years removed from a national championship and would be a 4-seed this coming March. Purdue got a 91-85 road win.
The Boilermakers took a week off and then went to that hated place in Bloomington. Some more disappointment awaited in an 82-79 loss, but Purdue still closed the month of January with a record of 17-2 and were back to #2 in the national rankings.
After an easy win at lowly Wisconsin, the Boilermakers went to Ann Arbor. Michigan was their chief competition for the Big Ten crown. The Wolverines had the league’s top two scorers in Glen Rice and Gary Grant. Rice was also third in the league in rebounding, while Grant led in assists and ended up winning conference MVP. Purdue’s 91-87 road win was a big statement and put them in control of the league race.
The Boilers went on to survive at mediocre Michigan State by two and then got a nice 73-68 road win at Iowa. It set up a Sunday afternoon revenge game with Indiana at Mackey Arena. In a sizzling basketball game, Purdue won 95-85. A week later they got another double-digit win over Illinois, this one 93-79. As the Boilermakers closed February with an easy win at Northwestern, they were two games up on Michigan in the Big Ten race with four to play.
A 28-point pounding of Wisconsin up in Madison set the stage for another battle with Michigan. This one was in Mackey and this time there was room to spare. Purdue won 80-67 and clinched the first outright Big Ten championship of the Keady era.
After a loss at Ohio State and blowout win over Minnesota, Purdue got its expected reward from the NCAA Selection Committee—the #1 seed in the Midwest and favorable first weekend geography. The great fans of Boiler Nation would need to simply get on a bus and head to South Bend for the beginning of what looked certain to be a Final Four run and perhaps even more. In tournament pools, Purdue was a reasonably popular pick to win the school’s first national championship.
And they looked the part in South Bend. After the expected dismantling of 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson 94-79, the Boilermakers came out and dropped triple digits on Memphis with a 100-73 win. Over the two games, McCants scored 46 points, Lewis dropped 41 and Mitchell added 34. The rebounding edge was decisive, with Purdue getting 33 more rebounds than their opponents. The performance both team-wide and individually, was comparable over the two games—those numbers aren’t padded by the Fairleigh Dickinson game.
Furthermore, the Midwest Regional was gutted by upsets. The 2-seed (Pitt) and 3-seed (Jim Valvano’s N.C. State) were both gone. As Purdue went to Detroit and the Pontiac Silverdome for the regionals, a Final Four trip seemed inevitable.
Kansas State was lying in wait for a rematch. When Purdue took a 43-34 lead at halftime it seemed like business as usual. Stephens knocked down 20 points and handed out nine assists on the night. Lewis scored 19. But Mitchell and McCants weren’t shooting well. The inside pair would combine to go 11-for-27. And note that this was not an era where big men shot from the perimeter—only one of those shots was from behind the arc. That means Purdue was missing chances from closer in.
And Mitch Richmond was going off. He would end up with 27 points/11 rebounds. Kansas State took control in the second half and in a most improbable ending, the 4-seed Wildcats won 73-70 in an upset that seemed bigger than the seed differential would indicate.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered. Kansas was the 6-seed and with Danny Manning in charge, were on a run that would led them to a memorable national championship. But it still wasn’t the ending that anyone had in mind for the 1988 Purdue Boilermakers.
Keady would go on to win more Big Ten championships (three straight outright from 1994-96). He got into the regional weekend four more times. Twice he pushed his way to the Elite Eight, one of them with national Player of the Year Glenn Robinson in 1994. But he never made the Final Four. Some of us still look back on that 1988 group as the one that was his best shot.