March 22, 2013
A look back: The pinnacle 44 years later
Let's face it, it's the goal of any Division I basketball team; to play for a national championship. And 44 years ago today, Purdue achieved this pinnacle for the only time in school history.
The fact that the Boilermakers were handled relatively easily by UCLA matters less now. In 2013 terms, Purdue coach George King pulled a Tom Crean-like program turnaround while Crean was a still a toddler. In King's first season at Purdue in 1965-66, the Boilermakers were just 8-16, yet three years later they were on the brink of winning it all.
The 1968-69 team brought the Big Ten title home to West Lafayette for the first time in 27 seasons with a 13-1 league mark. Looking back, it was a magical season with Mackey Arena (before it was named Mackey Arena) full to capacity every night. With its fast-breaking high scoring style, the Mount-Keller, Gilliam remains to this day arguably the favorite Purdue team of all-time. There is only the memory of the title game that still stings four-and-one-half decades later.
"The only regret I have is that I wish we would have been at full strength," recalled two-time All-American Rick Mount when recalling the 92-72 loss to the Coach John Wooden's Bruins in the national championship game played on March 22, 1969 in Louisville's Freedom Hall. "We had proven the year before and earlier in the 1968-69 season we could stay with them, but our injuries were too much to overcome on that day."
Yes, the Boilermakers were banged up. All-Big Ten forward (the late) Herman Gilliam and standout point guard Billy Keller was far from 100 percent with leg injuries. The duo, a big reason why the Boilermakers led the nation in scoring that season, were a combined 6-of-31 from the field. Center Chuck Bavis, who had slowed UCLA's Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in the two previous meetings, missed the final three games of the tournament after a suffering a shoulder injury in the Sweet 16 as well.
Yet, when you talk to many of the former players decades later they realize that beating a team recognized as one of the greatest of all time was a tall task under ideal conditions. After all, the 1968-69 Bruins were on a short list of the greatest teams ever.
"I don't know if we could have beaten them," said Keller in a recent interview. "But I have the benefit of 40-plus years of hindsight. Back then we came out of the locker room thinking we could win. When you are 22-years old, you don't know any different."
Alcindor, voted No. 1 on SI.com's top-75 players all-time in the NCAA Tournament put an exclamation point on his fabulous collegiate career with a 37-point 20-rebound performance. The point total in the one game about equaled Alcindor's combined effort in UCLA's 73-71 win to dedicate Purdue's new arena on Dec. 2, 1967 and the Bruins 94-82 win in Pauley Pavilion on Nov. 30, 1968. UCLA was an amazing 91-2 in Alcindor's three years in Westwood.
Mount, who is the lone Boilermaker on SI.com's list of NCAA greats, started the game off great hitting two quick jumpers and giving Purdue an early lead. But then he missed 14 shots in a row, and the Bruins built a double-digit lead, something they held for just about the entire contest. Purdue only committed a then school record four turnovers, which kept things from really getting out of hand.
"We have had better days," Mount, who still managed 28 points in the game said.
Still, the 1968-69 team accomplished something no Purdue team
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