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Midway through the Big Ten battle royal, Indiana reigned, but Purdue, Iowa and Illinois were close behind

Confused over your W-4 from or finding the cheapest airfare to Disney World? Those are mere bagatelles compared with the challenge of keeping the Big Ten basketball race straight. While our favorite relatives, Uncle Mo and Auntie Mentum, shift sides every 17 seconds, a handful of star teams are pounding each other twice weekly along the snowy trail to what could be history's first one-conference Final Four.

Check out last week's chaos:

•On Wednesday the most familiar Indiana and Illinois players practically disappeared, only to be replaced by a thoroughly unfamiliar Hoosier juco transfer named Dean Garrett from, of all places, San Clemente, Calif.

•On Thursday an Ohio State player threw a last-minute pass into the delirious Buckeye cheering section rather than to the marvelous Dennis Hopson (see box, page 81), granting Purdue a reprieve and a treasured road victory.

•On Saturday a dangerous double G-force, Michigan's Gary Grant and Glen Rice, teamed up for an air strike into the heart of an Iowa team that a week earlier had been an undefeated wire-service No. 1 but now resembles just another Platoon trying to survive.

•And later that day, normally steady Purdue missed 12 of 30 free throws and surrendered in its bitter showdown at Indiana, where IU's prototype one-dimensional shooter, Steve Alford, reappeared to get five assists, six rebounds and a flock of loose ball recoveries as the Hoosiers emerged alone in first place.

Enough conference teams have been rattling around in the polls that the Big Ten might as well be the Top Ten. Moreover, with those teams overcoming huge leads and playing the undergarments off one another, it has become nearly impossible to tell them apart. Is it Purdue (16-3, 7-2 in the Big Ten) that has the T 'n' T boys, Troy Lewis and Todd Mitchell, and Iowa (19-2, 7-2) the M 'n' Mers, Roy Marble and Jeff Moe? And which of those teams came from 22 points behind to whip Illinois on the road? Does the latest, greatest, slow, white, can't-jump jump shooter Whazzisname Alfordberger, spray his picture-book rainbows for Indiana (17-2, 8-1) or the Illini (15-5, 5-3)? Is Iowa's Sir Jamalot a real knight? Or should Indiana's Knight, now that he is No. 1 on the bestseller list, be addressed as Sir? And now who's due, Purdue?

Measuring the strength of a conference is risky business, and the fact that North Carolina knocked off both Illinois and Purdue early on may mean something or it may not. But new Ohio State coach Gary Williams, who played at Maryland in the ACC and coached Boston College in the Big East, says, "This reminds me of three years ago in the Big East. Our league had three teams in the Final Four, and BC, which finished sixth in the conference, missed the final eight by a basket. At midseason we didn't really know how good our league was. At the end we knew."

With last Saturday off, Williams may have been pondering how good his one-man, one-Hop crew (13-7, 4-4) might be, now that it has upset Iowa on the road, nearly upset Purdue at home and defeated three teams that have occupied first place in other conferences—Kansas, Florida and Jacksonville.

"I don't know whether we're any better than Ohio State," says Illinois coach Lou Henson, who was to find out Monday night in Columbus.

And then there's Indiana's Bob Knight, who said, "Nobody in our conference is better than Illinois," after his new center, Garrett, scored 20 points and blocked six shots, including a potential game-tier by Illini muscle man Ken Norman in the Hoosiers' pulsating 69-66 home victory Wednesday. "We had no illusions that this would be anything but possession-by-possession and down-to-the-wire," said Knight. "I just don't know how good we are."

Plenty good, considering that the Illini's Doug Altenberger hounded Alford into 3-for-11 shooting and shut him out from three-point range for the first time this season. Alford, Altenberger and Norman combined to miss 30 shots in a fierce defensive struggle. But on Saturday, Indiana's senior All-America nailed a more routine 31 while the 6'10" Garrett soared for 14 points, 10 rebounds and 5 more blocks as the Hoosiers whipped visiting Purdue 88-77.

Indiana and Illinois were never separated by more than four points, making their encounter atypical of the other Big conTender clashes. The Hoosiers had a 13-point lead on Purdue but gave it all away before rallying at the end. Purdue scored 16 in a row at Ohio State but needed the Bucks' Kip Lomax to hurl a late pass out of bounds to win. Iowa made that 22-point comeback to win at Illinois on Jan. 14. Michigan went ahead of Iowa by 15, but the Hawks weren't dead until Rice scored the last of his 33 points in a 100-92 victory.

"The game is never over in this league," said Alford, who had to be rushed back in against Purdue with 42 seconds left to help save the win. This, nine days after Indiana's defense had held Iowa to 101 points. It was the first time a team had ever ripped a Knight-coached Hoosier squad for triple figures.

The stunningly deep and explosive Hawkeyes crash the glass relentlessly. They outrebounded Purdue 43-24, Illinois 49-31 and proud Indiana 46-19 (27-2 at the offensive end). Think maybe a few flies on the wall of the Hoosier dressing room got squooshed by a flying chair? "In practice, you can't quite duplicate the quickness and aggressiveness they have," said Knight. "They keep coming at you."

The Hawks are so tough they took on their school's national champion wrestling team, fighting it to a draw outside an Iowa City bar behind the fists of 6'8", 225-pound center Ed Horton.

"The best rebounding team I've ever seen," says Illinois' Henson of the young (only three seniors in the 10-deep revolving lineup) and relentless Iowans, who lead the nation with a board differential of 13 per game. And they're still learning, while at the same time giving lessons to their opponents. Purdue forward Doug Lee: "We had been concentrating on blocking out. They just send everybody and splatter you. Forget technique. We're just going after it now."

Iowa's new coach, Tom Davis, is a Phil Donahue look-alike, with a Ph.D. in history, who put a hockey school (Boston College) on the basketball map and then took a sabbatical to a school school (Stanford) where his progressive scheme of multiple substitution and bounce-passing might have worked if he could have bounced any passers past the admissions department. For all his but-toned-down style and polished imagery, though, Davis left few friends in New England, where he presided—unknowingly—over the BC point-shaving scandal and was known as Dr. Snake. When Davis's former assistant and successor at BC, the more popular Williams, and OSU handed the good doctor his first defeat at Iowa, a lot of Bostonians could not have been more pleased.

At Iowa, Davis is winning with the same players former coach George Raveling went 20-12 with last season. So what gives? This: The doctor can adapt, adjust, fit personnel to positions and situations, teach whole-grain, 94-foot pressure and coach the daylights out of the game. "You can give the doctor all the credit for this team," says Kevin Mackey, another Davis protègè, who coached the last outfit, Cleveland State, to press Indiana into oblivion—in last year's NCAA tournament. "He's the best. The Doc and Gary will change the Big Ten forever."

Four of Raveling's starters returned to Iowa, but Davis starts only one, Marble. The changes Davis wrought in Iowa City include the conversion of 6'6" Kevin Gamble and the resourceful 7-foot Brad Lohaus from non-contributing pine-timers to, respectively, the off-guard who saved the Purdue game and the mobile forward who is second on the team in three-point goals and mans the point on the press. Moreover, when point guard-designate Michael Reaves and center Gerry Wright—Sir Jamalot of cartwheel-dunk fame—went down with injuries, Davis gave their positions to B.J. Armstrong and the combative Horton, with heroic results. Sophomore Marble is a scorer of Jordanian potential up front, and the fist-brandishing guard, Jeff Moe, is probably the best—he is unrivaled as the most obnoxious—sixth man in the land.

It was following the extravagant 22-point comeback against Illinois—Lohaus sizzled with 23 points and 12 boards—that the grumbling about the platooning stopped. "Guys would mutter, 'Whoa, I'm coming out already?' " says Moe. "After we won, it was, 'Hey, the guy knows what he's doing.' "

Did Dr. Tom foresee such success? "I didn't not foresee it," he says.

O.K. Did anybody foresee the problem Purdue coach Gene Keady created for himself when he scheduled a Sunday TV game with Louisville 29 hours before hosting Iowa on Jan. 19? Michigan coach Bill Frieder did, telling Keady last summer, "That will cost you the Big Ten title, you dumbass." And sure enough, it might. The Boilers' legs died at the end, and Iowa prevailed, 70-67.

But Keady, desperate as he is for the exposure, would do it again. "I never said we were smart," he laughs. Just damn solid: Over the last six seasons, Purdue and Indiana have the best records in the Big Ten, and Keady has brought parity to that storied rivalry. He was 6-6 against Knight before last week's rubber match. Despite that, Purdue is not only third in the league in total wins but also third in Indiana (Notre Dame won't play the Boilers home-and-home). Who knows where it ranks with the NCAA tournament committee. For the last two years Purdue has had to begin the tournament on its opponent's home court—and has lost both times.

This Dangerfieldian complex stays with Purdue like the cloud over Joe Btfsplk. Getting a victory in Blooming-ton last week was especially crucial for the Boilers, who needed to match the big twin road wins already scored by Indiana (at Ohio State and Michigan) and Iowa (at Illinois and Purdue).

Indiana didn't let them have it, and here's why: After 10 lead changes through the first 23 minutes, after the Purdue star, Mitchell, got his fourth foul and sat out most of the next eight minutes, after Indiana had forged a 65-59 lead that the T 'n' T boys should easily have been able to deflate but didn't, the wondrous Alford called for the ball and simply took over the contest.

Not only with the singular long-range missile, mind you. But with rebounds, loose-ball pickups, passing, playmaking and propelling himself into traffic where he could be fouled and convert the automatic two free throws. Alford's 13 of 15 from the line on Saturday made him 84 for 93 on the season (90%). In a 13-2 Indiana run, Alford made seven foul shots, one field goal, passed off for another and, maybe just for fun, missed still another so that underrated junior Steve Eyl could get fouled on the rebound and convert two freebies himself.

All this from a supposedly sick Alford, who had sat out practice the previous two days and who played, he said, "with chills from beginning to end."

A big chill cools the competition in the Big Ten? When you think of it—and you will as championship time approaches—remember that the most reliable constant in the granddaddy of all conferences is the grandest of guards at Indiana.



Playing for keeps, Iowa's Gamble stepped over teammate Moe (top); Horton planted an elbow in Garrett's face (center); OSU's John Anderson played heads-up D on Armstrong.



[See caption above.]



With first place on the line, Alford rose up and shot down Purdue with 31 points.



Lohaus (54) and his high-flying Hawkeyes humiliated the Hoosiers 101-88 at home.



For Garrett and the Hoosiers, staying ahead in the race will require a tough balancing act.