Wednesday, December 18, 2019

High Sky Today For the Metro League

By Jonathan Lowe

When you look at any workplace ... heck, anything in life ... a good rule of thumb is that all good things will come to an end. Sometimes, it's due to seeking a bigger challenge. Sometimes, it's due to the promise of more grandiose achievements. Sometimes, it's due to forces out of your control.

Twenty-five years ago, a Division I basketball conference made it final tour. The old Metropolitan Collegiate Athletic Conference started in 1975. For 20 years, tried to be a thorn in the sides of the ACC, SEC, Big 8, Big Ten, Pac-10, and, eventually, Big East. It was a league that also served as a precursor to the shifting landscape of college athletics.

While realignment wasn't rampant, it was present. The Metro proved to be an audition for those larger conferences. As some schools jumped to more lucrative transit stops, programs like Southern Miss (1982-1995), Charlotte (1991-1995), and South Florida (1991-1995) entered the conference during its run. Now, a quarter-century after merging with the Great Midwest Conference to from Conference USA, the individual pieces that made up the Metro are creating a nostalgic collective we haven't seen before (at least, for this group).

So, what was the makeup of this league of previous basketball vagabonds?

Georgia Tech (1975-1978)

The Yellow Jackets helped to found the league, but they didn't stay long. After three seasons, and another as an Independent, they joined the ACC. For about a dozen years (1984-1996), Bobby Cremins made Georgia Tech a (nearly-)perennial tournament entry. He even reached a national semifinal in 1990. Cremins' successor made it one step further, as Paul Hewitt's 2003-2004 team lost in the national championship game to Connecticut.

However, this past decade hasn't been very kind to the Yellow Jackets. The last NCAA berth was in 2010. The school is in the middle of era No. 3 since (Hewitt, Brian Gregory, and Josh Pastner), and won't be able to break the streak. The school has a one-year postseason ban for recruiting violations. Whether Pastner will ultimately make it out of this saga (which includes four years of probation) remains to be seen.

Saint Louis (1975-1982)

In 1975, the Billikens' program had a deeper history of some success, even though there wasn't a stack of NCAA invites. That history didn't stick around through their seven-year affiliation. SLU never got its footing, with an overall .481 winning percentage (13-14) in 1975-1976 being the team's best during their time in the Metro. After their departure, the program seemingly found some familiar ground. They got back to respectability by the time the Great Midwest Conference formed.

The school's also had a decent run of coaches. Charlie Spoonhour reached three tournaments. Lorenzo Romar made his lone tourney there right after Spoonhour. Unfortunately, it was Rick Majerus' final stop on his coaching tour. Assistant Jim Crews kept the appearances going after Majerus' passing. After a four-year absence, Travis Ford led SLU back in this past March. This season, with an 8-2 start (including a win over Tulane), Ford hopes that they won't need an Atlantic-10 tournament title to find their way back to the NCAAs.

Cincinnati (1975-1991)

When this conference was formed, there's no question that the program with the highest profile was the Bearcats. Cincinnati had two national championships to its name. In a five-year stretch from the 1958-1963 postseasons, the school notched those two titles, a runner-up finish, and two other national semifinals berths. Other than UCLA, it's hard to figure any institution had that much success over such a time period. Over their 16-year association with the Metro, I think it's fair to say that no program was more negatively effected than Cincy. After first-round losses in 1976 and 1977, the Bearcats did not reach another NCAA tournament until 1992 (their first season in the newly-formed Great Midwest Conference).

Since that Final Four run, Cincinnati's journey has been nomadic (currently on their fourth league since leaving the Metro). Even with the constant moving, though, you'd have to say that the overall results have been successful. There was a five-year stretch -- right after Bob Huggins left and coinciding with their move to the old Big East -- that the school missed the NCAA tourney. But that's it in the 28 seasons since the 1992 return. Pretty dang good, I'd say. Can first-year head coach John Brannen keep that streak going?

Memphis (1975-1991)

A program that's had its ups and downs appears to be back on the uptick ... with a caveat. Favored son and alum Penny Hardaway is looking to return the team back to the heyday of a decade ago, when John Calipari had the school on the precipice of winning the 2008 national championship.

Problem is, that could be seen as great or cringe-worthy. Similar to those days a few years back, these Tigers are relevant in the national picture. But, also similar to that era, the post-effects could involve some "mind-erasing." Where Derrick Rose wiped the 2007-2008 season from the NCAA record books, James Wiseman, Jr. is the latest top talent to demand the attention that violations bring. With Wiseman on the floor, a Final Four return could be in the cards. But will they flip over the Joker instead of the ace?

Louisville (1975-1995)

There was no question that the bell-cow of the now-defunct conference was the Cardinals. The school's two titles in the 1980s (along with two other Final Four appearances) lays out a convincing argument to name them the program of that decade. The transition from then-head coach Denny Crum to Rick Pitino kept championship potential in the fold. Pitino delivered on that potential in 2013 (with a title that has been stripped via NCAA violations). The recurring controversies surrounding Pitino finally forced a separation.

However, Chris Mack appears to have quickly put the momentum back in a positive direction. The Cardinals are 10-1 and were just ranked No. 1 in the country last week. I have to believe they'll be in hunt for the ACC title as the season wears on. That automatically puts you in the national championship picture come mid-March.

Tulane (1975-1985, 1989-1995)

The most curious case to ever come out of the Metro Conference has to be the Green Wave. Prior to their alliance with the conference, there were two stints of success for the program. The first happened between 1922-1925, before postseason tournaments were introduced at this level. The second occurred from 1945-1950 ... in the SEC, of all places. Tulane sported an overall record of 99-30, but never made the NCAA or NIT tournaments (you can add a 16-6 season in 1943-1944 to the provided proof).

After joining the Metro, the Green Wave started to see positive gains in the early 1980s. That was all wiped away in 1985, when a point-shaving scandal led to the program being shuttered for four seasons. Once the team was restored, the program promptly had its best run-to-date, going to 3 NCAA tourneys over their last four seasons in the conference (prior to it becoming Conference USA in 1995-1996). Tulane hasn't been back since. The program now has an infusion of life, with first-year coach Ron Hunter fresh off of two NCAA appearances at Georgia State. With an 8-2 start to his inaugural season, it appears the Hunter's influence is quickly taking effect.

Florida State (1976-1991)

Okay. Show of hands. How many people actually remember the Seminoles being part of the Metro Conference? (By the way, pretty sure half of you are lying.) They joined the league in 1976 and stuck around until hooking up with the ACC in 1991. This program's history seems to be defined in spurts. There are "feasts" of a few years of NCAA viability, followed by "droughts" where the product falls short of the Madness. Head coach Leonard Hamilton found a "feast" from 2009-2012, followed by a "drought" from 2013-2016. He's currently in another "feast." going the last three seasons. The start to this campaign lends itself to another return. With a deep ACC, though, FSU needs to make certain they're on the right side of .500 in league play.

Virginia Tech (1979-1995)

This is one of those stories where the program took immediate advantage of the "jump up" in class. Over its last seven seasons as an Independent, the Hokies had a .615 winning percentage or better six times. Only one of those campaigns ended with an NCAA berth. The first two years in the Metro produced a 22-win season, a 21-win season, and two NCAA tournament appearances. There would be two more invites during the mid-1980s. After that, though, the bids dried up to few-and-far-between.

Buzz Williams changed all of that over the last few seasons. His coaching prowess and charisma guided those squads to three straight NCAAs, including within a bucket of a Regional Final appearance in March (via knocking off overall favorite Duke). But with Williams gone to Texas A&M, it's up to Mike Young to continue this longest bid streak in school history.

South Carolina (1983-1991)

This program has had a bit of a winding road throughout its history. That past includes being a founding member of two leagues (the Southern, a.k.a. SoCon, and the ACC), an Independent program two times over, and an expanding partner of the SEC. The springboard to their current conference was the Metro. For eight seasons, the Gamecocks tried to find some kind of footing. There was one NCAA appearance (1989). Their last go-round was a 20-win campaign (1990-1991).

Pre-Metro, the school's claim to fame was coaxing Hall of Fame coach Frank McGuire out of his retirement after leaving North Carolina. Post-Metro, that claim may be coaxing coach Frank Martin out of Manhattan, KS. In 2017, Martin led this USC to a height it had never reached ... the Final Four. The last two seasons, the Gamecocks have been a .500 team. But you can't count Martin out. When you least expect it, he'll throw a wrench into someone's best laid plans. In a jumbled-up middle of the SEC, Carolina might be able to find that streak to push above the fray.

Virginia Commonwealth (1991-1995)

Of the last group of schools to be invited into the league, the Rams have made the biggest post-Metro impression. Shaka Smart's run to the 2011 Final Four is still legendary. While success wasn't out of the question for the school (nine tournament berths before that year), the 2011 postseason was part of a trend. From 2004-2017, VCU would enter 10 NCAA tournaments, sending all four of their head coaches (Jeff Capel, Anthony Grant, Smart, and Will Wade) on to Power 5 jobs (Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, and LSU).

Mike Rhoades might be the next in line. Following a 25-win year with postseason qualification, the Rams are positioning themselves for another berth. The campus has watched its share of coaches move on to "greener pastures." Will this one stay to watch the buds bloom?

In the days where 10-team conferences were the enormous ceiling, getting multiple bids out of a 6-8-team league was pretty admirable. The Metro Conference consistently did that, with 44 bids over 20 years of existence (even including a 0-bid year in 1987). But, as a collective, this group of former "co-workers" may not have better NCAA representation than in 2020. This group could celebrate as many as 9 bids, surpassing the eight that the collective garnered in 2012.

Things change ... separate ... move on. However, that doesn't mean the pieces of the whole can't grow stronger in their own space. Welcome to the potential for 2020: "Return to the Metro."

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