UI purdue4

Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) and Purdue's center Matt Haarms (32) in a NCAA basketball game at the state farm center in Champaign on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020.Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) and Purdue's center Matt Haarms (32) in a NCAA basketball game at the state farm center in Champaign on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020.

Listen to this article

When Illinois and Purdue quintets engage in another ear-splitting meat-grinder in West Lafayette, Ind., on Tuesday night, they will be representing two of the nation’s most historically-successful programs that, in 80 seasons, have never won an NCAA basketball championship.

Oh, Piggy Lambert coached 11 Big Ten champions (Gene Keady won six but no Final Four), and Lambert’s 17-1 club in 1932, featuring All-American guard John Wooden, was deemed the nation’s best, as were the 1943 Illini Whiz Kids. But neither got to play in the tournament because (1) it didn’t start until 1939, one year after Lambert fielded another great 18-2 team and (2) the Illini declined in ‘43 because key players were called to World War II service.

Closest Purdue ever got was in 1969 when the Boilermakers ran into one of Wooden’s 10 UCLA champions, with Lew Alcindor outscoring Rich Mount 37-28 in a showdown of superstars.

Late game misfortunes

But it is the fate of these nearby rivals that they were involved in the conference’s most bizarre race.

It revolved around a tragic incident that couldn’t, shouldn’t but really did happen.

Setting the stage, 1947 marked the return of the four Whiz Kids — Jack Smiley, Gene Vance, Andy Phillip and Ken Menke — who as sophomores in 1942 won the Big Ten title and then blew a four-point lead in the last three minutes of a 46-44 loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

This marked the beginning of ill-fated Illini tournament trips, 14 eliminations over the decades by four points or less, not counting three hurtful five-pointers: frigid shooting did ‘em in against Kansas State in 1981, Villianova used the UI’s missed free throws to rally in 1988 and North Carolina prevailed 75-70 in Illinois’ only title game venture in 2005.

Unlucky doesn’t begin to tell the full extent of Illini misfortunes, both of the Final Four teams in 1951 and 1952 falling by two, and the top-ranked Flying Illini losing 83-81 to Michigan in the national semifinals in Seattle in 1989 after having thumped the Wolverines 96-84 and 89-73 earlier that season.

Back to Whiz Kids

You were promised a tragedy, not a recitation of last-shot Illini losses.

We return to 1947 when the four Whiz Kids re-enrolled with high hopes. They were No. 1 in the country in 1943 (the Big Nine’s only perfect league record in a stretch of 31 years), and they saw themselves ranked No. 2 upon their return.

But coach Doug Mills discovered in early-season losses, including a 53-47 setback at Wisconsin, that the quartet’s magic of 1943 had been diminished by their harrowing experiences in Europe and the South Pacific. And Mills found himself with a 25-man roster, so chock-full of talent that B-games were scheduled for future starters like Roy Gatewood, Wally Osterkorn and Burdette Thurlby.

Mills was overwhelmed. Fleet Rockford freshman Bill Erickson and 1945 All-American Walt Kirk soon cracked the lineup. The great Dike Eddleman was back from the Rose Bowl triumph.

Fred Green shared center with Bob Lavoy. One box score showed 18 UI participants. Dick Foley and 1946 MVP Bob Doster vied for playing time. So did 1948 captain Jack Burmaster. If Phillip had been a consensus All-American in 1942 and 1943, Smiley was now the leading scoring, premier defender and MVP.

End of an era

Mills used a Mixmaster substitution pattern to reach the final game tied with Wisconsin for the title and the Big Ten’s lone NCAA berth. But Illinois went flat at Indiana, falling 48-41.

The Illini needed Purdue to defeat Wisconsin to create a three-way tie involving Indiana, and the Boilermakers were unbeaten in their 11,000-seat fieldhouse. Fired up, they led the Badgers 34-33 at half, causing fans squeezed into the east stands to rise and cheer them into the locker room.

Then disaster struck. The bleachers holding more than 3,000 fans suddenly shook, sagged and collapsed. Two students were crushed to death and a third died two days later. Emergency vehicles arrived amid the panic to evacuate some 300 to various hospitals with fractures, concussions and cuts. It was a sports disaster unlike anything the conference had known.

Two weeks later, the game was resumed at a neutral, sparsely attended site, Evanston High School, but the Boilermakers’ hearts weren’t in it.

Wisconsin won 72-60, knocking Illinois out of the NCAA tournament and ending the Whiz Kid era ... and providing an early link to Kentucky and Austin Peay and Villanova and Carolina as lip-chewing postseason crashes along the UI’s basketball highway.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com