The most perplexing question raised by Louisville's emphatic win in the Metro Conference tournament this past weekend wasn't how did Memphis State finally lose to a league rival on its home floor, or how could the Metro go from zero NCAA tournament bids to three in one season, or even how might the No. 2-ranked Louisville Ladybirds dance team someday unseat the national champion Memphis State pom-pom squad. The question was this: Do you file the Cardinals' 81-73 final-round victory over the Tigers under the category of "The more things change, the more they stay the same"? Or under "What a difference a year makes"?
Usually by this time in the season, the Cards are hitting their stride, the accelerated gait that has taken them to four Final Fours in the past eight years. But last season at this time, coach Denny Crum took his son fishing. "Last year we didn't get seeded very high," says Crum. "Sixty-sixth, I think." The snub prompted Crum to excoriate the NCAA selection committee for not inviting his 18-14 defending national champion team to the tournament.
Fact is, the last time any Metro school played in the NCAAs was when Louisville won that national crown in 1986 by beating Duke in the finals. So when the smoke finally trickled from the committee's chimney on Sunday, it was a giddy moment for the infraction-addled, sanction-saddled Metro, college basketball's speakeasy conference. Happily for the league, neither South Carolina nor Virginia Tech, both of which are on NCAA probation, embarrassed the Metro by winning the tournament and claiming the automatic bid, and both Memphis State and Florida State slipped into the big party through the at-large door. "From top to bottom our conference is as strong as it's ever been," said Crum, who was calling the league "a laughingstock" just a year ago. "To lose 10 games and still get a No. 5 seed, I'm just tickled to death."
Louisville is the team that usually comes out on Groundhog Day, sees its shadow and then casts it on all comers. This season's edition is 12-2 since the end of January and enters the NCAAs immediately after having played what Crum calls "our two best back-to-back games of the year."
The Cards' starting frontcourtmen—steady center (Never Nervous) Pervis Ellison, forward (Superb) Herb Crook and sweet-shooting swingman Kenny Payne—are all holdovers from the title team. They wear championship rings on their fingers and atonement on their sleeves. "In '86 we only knew one side, the successful side," says Ellison. "Last year we found out what it takes to lose."
This season the Cardinals are making amends. Crook, for one, has improved almost all his 1986-87 Metro Player of the Year numbers. That he nonetheless didn't even make the All-Metro first team left Superb Herb unperturbed. "I don't care about that," he says. "Basketball's a team game. If I worried about that, I'd get into track or something." Crook had a total of 38 points and 14 rebounds in Louisville's two tournament games. In Sunday's final he scored six points in a 14-2 second-half run, a burst that wiped out a 42-40 Memphis State lead and put the Cards ahead to stay. Crook then went on to edge Tiger pompom senior Staci Brazier for the tournament's outstanding performer honors.
But most critical to Louisville's success this season has been the play of its guards. Point man Keith Williams finally found his shooting stroke. Senior Mike Abram has contributed off the bench. LaBradford Smith, a freshman from Bay City, Texas, who is the starting off guard, sprang for 21 points and eight assists in the Cards' 89-57 semifinal defeat of South Carolina.
Teammates call the mercurial Smith L.A. "It's because of my first name," says Smith, "but also because people say I got a lot of Hollywood in me." Fans at Louisville's Freedom Hall, however, called him T.O. because he had more turnovers (135) than assists (133) going into postseason play. After Smith had pouted on the bench throughout the second half of the Cardinals' narrow victory at home over Memphis State on Feb. 29, 7-foot reserve center Felton Spencer had to yank him to his feet to join in the late-game jubilation.
Thanks to Louisville's notoriously tough schedule. Smith has been schooled by such redoubtable guards as Kentucky's Ed Davender, Purdue's Everette Stephens. DePaul's Rod Strickland and Notre Dame's David Rivers. The Cards suffered losses to all of these rivals, but none was as educational for Smith as the 69-54 Notre Dame defeat, in which Smith went 1 for 5. "I just sat in my room watching the film, to see what I did wrong," says Smith. "Then I'd watch again, to see what David did right."
While that may sound humble, Louisville is considered just plain haughty around the Metro. To the other schools, most everything about the Cardinals has a supercilious air, from their media guide (it's hardcover) to their intermittent talk of bolting to another conference. Their latest notion, which never materialized, was a sort of Big Midwest, featuring themselves, Dayton, Marquette and DePaul, among others.
After Tulane dropped basketball three years ago, Crum was asked what team he would like to see replace the Green Wave in the Metro. "Nobody!" he said, mindful that Tulane's departure left him with only 12 obligatory league games (two against each of the conference's other six teams) annually and thus more opportunities for TV network paydays with the UCLAs, Georgia Techs and N.C. States. "Louisville has a distinction," says South Carolina coach George Felton. "They're Louisville."
As a result, the Cardinals are razzed around the league—though they are not necessarily fazed. "The booing is a sign of respect to us," says Payne, the son of a Mississippi preacher, whose jumper finally came north with him this season. "They wish they had the tradition we do. Why else would they boo? We're not a dirty team."
They're not, and they have indeed been the dependable engine sustaining the Metro through its turbulent history. Formed in 1975 as the Metro Six, the league anticipated the Big East by dedicating itself to basketball and big cities. But shake the Metro's hand, and the next instant you might feel like washing it. Just as Memphis State reaches the Final Four, the Tulane point-shaving scandal explodes. Just as Louisville wins a national championship, Cincinnati brings in six recruits who become Proposition 48 casualties. Just as Southern Mississippi rolls to the NIT title, a Memphis State probation fiasco results in the league's getting shut out of the NCAA field.
This season's most sobering misdemeanor came to light in December, when Memphis State lost Sylvester Gray and Marvin Alexander, its frontcourt whales, because they had signed with and taken money from Atlanta agent Jim Abernethy. That the Tigers made the tournament is a credit to coach Larry Finch and begoggled freshman point guard Elliott Perry. On Jan. 25, Memphis State faced Cincinnati with an 0-4 league record and three would-be players—Gray, Alexander and NBA-hardship-reject Vincent Askew—watching from the sidelines. The Tigers finished at 19-11 overall. "Maybe it wasn't all bad losing Marvin and Sylvester like that," says Finch. "There was no time to frighten the kids. They just had to wade through the water."
Florida State, which lost to Pittsburgh and Oklahoma by a total of three points, went 19-10 because second-year coach Pat Kennedy inspired two players he had inherited—erstwhile fat forward George McCloud, who became a frighteningly lean and able 6'6" point guard, and 6'7" Tat Hunter, a heretofore earth-bound center who became a rebounding fool. Add Tony Dawson, a juco forward who walks with a limp, and the Seminoles were jerry-built but bid-worthy. "It's like winning a national championship," said Kennedy after hearing the news of their invitation.
Yet the Metro was lucky. By letting probation-ridden South Carolina and Virginia Tech in the tournament, the league could have cost itself a bid. But Carolina eliminated Tech in one quarterfinal, and Louisville dispatched the Gamecocks to purify the draw. However, the fortuitous outcome hardly vindicates the league. Why would it give its precious automatic bid a two-in-seven chance of winding up in the hands of a team that couldn't use it?
Six Metro athletic departments voted to allow Carolina and Tech to participate—all but, you guessed it, Louisville's. That Memphis State won last year's tournament while on probation and nary a Metro conference school made the NCAAs apparently didn't bother anyone. The league failed to learn a lesson from the ECAC Metro (no relation), in which probation-shackled Marist gallantly excused itself from the tournament to eliminate the possibility of the schools going bidless.
Of course, that's all-for-one-and-one-for-all thinking, for which the Metro has never been noted. The Metro is virtually the only major league in the nation in which the schools do not share revenues from appearances on television or in the NCAAs or the NIT. The Cardinals' booty from being on network TV seven times this season? All theirs. Their take for extended engagements in postseason play? Goes to the 'Ville's favorite charity: itself. "I respect Denny Crum," says Kennedy, who saw during his tenure at Iona how efficient a collectivist combine like the Big East can be. "He's a class man who runs a class program. But that we don't share revenue, it's absurd."
To its credit, the Metro is smartening up. This season the league at least began sharing income from telecasts of conference games, though Louisville has said that it won't relinquish revenues from nonconference network telecasts until schools like Florida State agree to share their football money. Further, contrary to previous votes by the athletic departments, the Metro presidents have decided that, beginning in 1989, any school that's on probation will be barred from the conference tournament. And new commissioner Ralph McFillen is lobbying for a full-time compliance officer. "We've got to try to stay out of trouble," McFillen said in mid-February. "We keep shooting ourselves in the foot."
Yet over a period of a few days after McFillen made that remark, the Metro was again picking buckshot out of its sneakers. The NCAA, as part of a preliminary inquiry, asked Florida State to supply a list of all basketball and football recruits who made campus visits during the mid-1980s. A brawl erupted in the final minutes of regulation time during Louisville's Feb. 20 game at South Carolina. And Virginia Tech's Frankie Allen, who was named interim coach in the wake of the investigation that put the Hokies on probation in the first place, was arrested on Feb. 19 in Salem, Va., on a charge of drunken driving after his car crossed a median and struck a utility pole.
On the brighter side, this season did see significant cracks form in the Louisville hegemony. Virginia Tech was an astonishment, beating Georgetown, West Virginia and Virginia thanks to Allen, who was voted the conference's Coach of the Year, and to intrepid guards Bimbo Coles and Wally Lancaster. At South Carolina, freshman Brent Price could do for Felton what brother Mark did for Felton's former boss Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech Southern Miss any one of whose players will let fly a three-pointer at any time from anywhere will defend its NIT title
For the Metro as a whole and for Louisville in its own semi-independent way, the tournament marked a new beginning. Perhaps that's why, on the official transcript of a postgame press conference, one player's "damn" was changed to "whew." When you're cleaning up your act, you have to start somewhere.