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.