On any Saturday afternoon in March, not so long ago, several legendary Big Ten helmsmen could be seen prowling the sidelines of field houses across America. These were the last remnants of the Old Guard — coaches who carried on the tradition of basketball fundamentals in an era when defense and teamwork gave way to egotism and perpetual talent mongering as the cornerstones of programs.

From the legacy of the Old Guard spouted a bevy of larger-than-life figures, starting with Wisconsin’s Walter Meanwell and peaking in the 1960s with the Wizard of Westwood, UCLA’s John Wooden. These coaches more closely resembled Midwestern preachers than diplomats and learned the game playing in makeshift courts rigged behind steel yards or cut into the family cornfield.

Yet, by the mid-’90s, this species of coach seemed primed for extinction in the new age of college basketball. Even in the Big Ten — a longtime haven for the practitioners of old-school ball — the old ways appeared on the way out.

In 1995, the conference lost two of the Old Guard when Michigan State and Illinois head coaches Jud Heathcote and Lou Henson handed over the reigns of their respective programs after nearly two decades of success. Five years later, the conference suffered the loss of another great when Indiana dismissed Bobby Knight after the volatile coach broke the “zero-tolerance” policy levied on him by the university prior to the 2000-01 season.

In the wake of the Knight firing, Bloomington erupted and the future of the conference’s flagship program lingered in uncertainty. More importantly, just one more from the Old Guard remained.

That is, until now.

As the lights went out on Gene Keady’s final regular season with the Boilermakers Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center, the air of history was unmistakable. In an event that undeniably felt more a retirement ceremony than a basketball game, few in attendance failed to see the greater significance of the afternoon. Keady, however, buried all sentiment under the matter at hand — securing a conference win.

With resolve unwavering — even after Wisconsin mounted a commanding early lead — the 68-year-old head coach actively roamed the Purdue bench, brandishing every bit the vigor of the Keady of old. In the opening half, however, his Boilermakers appeared flat, entering the break trailing 40-19. Though only those in black and gold will ever know, Keady said something in the locker room to light a fire. After halftime, his beleaguered squad came out to play.

Midway through the second period, scoring outbursts by Wisconsin silenced several Boilermaker attempts at a rally. “Just give up,” the Madison crowd chanted. Keady took no notice.

Yelling at players, jawing refs and shaking up the Boilermaker look with hockey-style line changes, Keady and his team fiercely battled back in the second half from what might have been an embarrassing finale.

Even in the final minutes, with the Badgers holding a dominating lead, the fiery helmsman drained his stash of timeouts in a hopeless attempt to rally a comeback. The effort was, in a word, heroic. After all, a member of the Old Guard would claim to be a coach, not a statistician, and Keady clearly disregarded the impossible odds against him.

Following the Saturday defeat, the Purdue icon arrived at the post-game nothing less than vintage Keady. With the last of his 25 seasons with the Boilermakers on the books and tourney selection just around the corner, the dynamic coach spared little gusto in declaring where his loyalty lies.

“I get tired of hearing people ripping the Big Ten,” Keady said. “They never coached in this league. This is a tremendous league — it’s got great fans and great venues.”

Although the Old Guard itself sits on the verge of utter twilight, the old-school legacy of the Big Ten endures, as the conference remains rife with the apprentices of legends. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo served extensively under Heathcote. Iowa’s Steve Alford came into the world of college hoops under the tutelage of Knight. And, now, associate head coach Matt Painter will take over for Keady at Purdue.

Call it a gentler version, call it a new day, but still call it Big Ten basketball. That won’t change anytime soon, thanks to men like Gene.

Next weekend, in the Big Ten tournament, Keady will face possibly the steepest odds of his career. Carrying in the 10 seed, the coach’s sole hope for one last dance rests on his team’s ability to stage four-straight upsets. Already out-gunned, the Boilermakers must also turn the feat without its principal offensive weapon, senior forward Carl Landry.

But don’t expect the bleak prospect of an NCAA berth to shake Keady.

As Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan often philosophizes: Some guys just never get cheated.

Even after suffering through the dwindling success of the Boilermakers in recent seasons, Keady never once stood idly by when dealt a bum rap.

That’s just not how the Old Guard rolls.