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.