WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. -- To people out here, Troy Lewis and Todd Mitchell have been around, or so it would seem, longer than Burns and Allen. Along with their renegade sidekick Everette Stephens, they have brought far more than laughter to Purdue basketball during the last four years. Best friends and roommates, they have been the heart and soul of a team that has won 91 games and, for a second straight season, leads the Big Ten, currently with a 13-1 record, 24-2 overall.

All sorts of impressive numbers fly around when people talk about the three seniors. They will leave here with numerous school records, very possibly two Big Ten titles and, because of their personalities, lots of good feeling. But all three of them know there is one vast void left to fill.

"March," Mitchell said simply. "We've done everything you can do during the regular season. We've won big games, beaten top teams, had high rankings {currently No. 2}, done well against Indiana {5-3 record} and gotten a lot of attention. But we've never done it in March. That's what this season has been all about from the beginning. We all know if we don't do it this time that's what we'll be most remembered for."

No one is more aware of March -- better known as the NCAA tournament -- than Coach Gene Keady. Now in his eighth season, Keady has a 173-67 record and has won more Big Ten games during that period (97) than any other coach. But in this state most people talk about Bob Knight and Indiana first, Notre Dame second and then Purdue. Keady is 8-8 against Knight and his team will earn a sixth straight NCAA bid next month.

Even though Indiana has had up years and down years in the '80s, the two true up years have produced national championships, in 1981 and 1987. Keady and Purdue are 2-5 in NCAA play and have never made it past the second round.

"We've had some bad breaks with the draw a couple times but that's the way it goes," Keady said. "Last year we were flat emotionally against Florida. I don't know if we were tired or what, but we got whipped. No excuses. It ruined my whole damn summer."

The loss to Florida in the second round of the tournament, coupled with Indiana's victory, really rankled here. The Boilermakers led Indiana by one game going into the final day of the Big Ten race only to be blown out in the finale by Michigan. That loss not only created a tie for the title but turned Purdue from the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region into the No. 3 seed in the East. The team that took that No. 1 spot was Indiana. The rest, as they say, is history.

"It's tough to go around and hear about Indiana all the time," said Lewis, the most emotional of the three seniors. "But we're all smart enough to know that the only way to change that is to do what they did. It isn't like we aren't capable of it . . . We just have to get it done."

This is a town that winces when people mention Indiana and Notre Dame. Each, in different ways, is filled with glamor and tradition. Purdue, 60 miles north of Indianapolis, has 33,000 students, a cozy old arena and lots more snow than glitter.

Keady doesn't wear flowers in his lapels or grab headlines with his antics -- although his intensity is comparable to Knight's. He is an old football player with thinning hair and the well-earned nickname of "Bulldog," a tribute both to his appearance and his attitude. He understands that notoriety in coaching comes when you win in NCAA play, yet chafed when he was asked to appear on a nationally syndicated TV show last fall and spent the whole program answering questions about Knight and Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps.

"It was as if we'd never won anything at Purdue," he said, shrugging. "The only way to change that is to win something they can't ignore."

Purdue has had some bad luck in NCAA play. The year before the current seniors arrived, Keady's first Big Ten championship team was sent to Memphis, to play Memphis State on its home floor. Two years later, the Boilermakers were shipped to Baton Rouge to play Louisiana State in the first round. But, in between, there was a loss to Auburn in South Bend in 1985 and then came last year's debacle in Syracuse against Florida.

"It's a strange feeling knowing that even though all these games are important they're just a warmup," said Stephens, who has emerged the last two seasons as one of the nation's best point guards. "We want to win the Big Ten but we found out last year that if you win it and then don't do anything in the tournament, everyone forgets real quickly."

Mitchell nodded his head as Stephens talked. "I still can't believe that Indiana won," he said. "We were just as capable. But we didn't do it. They did."

The pressure that everyone here feels this season has been evident all season. When Purdue lost in the second round of the preseason NIT to Iowa State, Keady quickly scrapped the new up-tempo offense he had installed and went back to what had worked in the past. When Lewis was late for a bus and Stephens late for a pregame meal on the day of a game at Illinois State, Keady, upset by a lack of discipline on the team, benched both even though they have been model citizens for four years.

In January, after a shaky victory at home over Ohio State, Keady raged about his team's play. "If they play like this they'll just win 20 games and then go out in the first round of the tournament to Podunk or somebody," Keady said. "I just can't believe our seniors will accept that."

Keady has stayed on the three seniors about leadership; bugged Mitchell about going inside more; pushed Lewis to expand his game and demanded that Stephens run the team with discipline. The record says Purdue is 22-2, as far as Keady is concerned it is 0-0 and will remain that way until next month.

The pressures currently facing the three seniors are self-inflicted. If they had not been so good, so quickly, they would not be expected to do so much.

As has often been the case at Purdue, they were not a marquee class in high school. Only Lewis, a 6-foot-4-inch guard from Anderson who was Indiana's co-Mr. Basketball as a senior, was considered a blue-chip recruit. Mitchell, 6-8 from Toledo, was thought by some to be a better football prospect and Stephens, 6-3 from Evanston, Ill., was a later bloomer.

Lewis and Mitchell became friends when they visited UCLA together and eventually decided going to school together would be fun. Both liked Purdue and Keady, and when Mitchell told Lewis that was where he was going, Lewis decided to join him. They became roommates and starters as freshmen and were important players during a 20-9 season. Stephens didn't play much.

The next year, Lewis and Mitchell became stars and Stephens a key role player. Last year, all three started and Stephens, the best defender among the three, came into his own.

While Lewis and Mitchell are so close that they sometimes finish each other's sentences, Stephens is the independent in the group. The other two tease him often about his penchant for being late, his tendency to ask questions that seem to come out of left field and his occasional lack of interest in academia.

"When will I graduate?" Lewis said, mimicking Stephens. "Let's see. I think it will be October, I mean November, no, no, definitely December . . . 1992." Actually, Stephens will graduate this summer, shortly after his two friends, who will have made it in four years.

From there, if you listen to pro scouts, he is the most certain of the three to succeed in the NBA. With his long arms, his quick-jumping ability and his defense, Stephens has impressed scouts lately perhaps the most.

"I think he's got the most potential of the three," Portland scout Brad Greenberg said. "Lewis is a better shooter, but Stephens is a good shooter and can do more things. Mitchell has a nice touch but needs to play inside more."

Greenberg last saw Purdue play in January. Since then, at Keady's urging (to use a polite term), Mitchell has played inside more, using his wide body in the low post effectively. He scored 21 second-half points a week ago against Indiana, most of them from the low post on a variety of spinning moves and turnarounds.

Lewis, a free-spirited shooter, has become a much more disciplined player of late, his assist total in the Indiana game being a reflection of that. He is averaging 18 points per game but, perhaps more important, is shooting 51 percent from the field -- an increase of almost five percentage points over last season.

Keady, who is never satisfied because being satisfied is dangerous, admits to being proud of what the group has accomplished.

"I've demanded an awful lot of them, especially this year," he said. "I've been all over them at times and I've been mad at 'em at times. But they've responded to everything."

His voice softened for a minute.

"You know the thing about these three is that they're such good kids," he said. " . . . I'm really proud of them."

Keady can say that now without worrying that the seniors will take it as a signal to relax and enjoy what they have accomplished. They know that as much as they would like another Big Ten title, this is just the preseason.

"He {Keady} has made it clear to us that there's only one way he'll ever be truly happy with us," Mitchell said. "That's if we win the national championship."

Lewis, Mitchell and Stephens will be remembered here for a long time after they're gone because of what they have done at Purdue. As the three ate a restaurant dinner after the Indiana victory, the stream of adoring fans stopping by the table never ended. Most wanted autographs.

"You guys off of cloud nine yet?" one fan asked.

Stephens shook his head emphatically as the man talked on. "We aren't on cloud nine because we won today," he said. "This was just a game. We've got another one Thursday. And then another and another. It all leads to March."

Only there for this Purdue team can cloud nine or anything resembling it be found.