Programs like Cincinnati and Memphis have a long history with each other – not only were they members of the Missouri Valley Conference, they also have the distinction of being charter members of four different conferences with each other. Those conferences include the Metro Athletic Conference, Conference USA, the American Athletic Conference, and today’s featured conference, the long-lost Great Midwest Conference. Even Saint Louis was a charter member with UC and Memphis in 3 of those conferences; they moved to the Atlantic 10 (with Charlotte) beginning with the 2005-06 season after DePaul and Marquette left Conference USA to join the Big East.
In the 1991-92 season, the Great Midwest Conference featured 6 charter members – 2 of which came from the Metro in the form of Cincinnati and Memphis. Saint Louis and Marquette had a brief stay in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference before joining the Great Midwest. UAB had been quite successful in the Sun Belt in their short history, and DePaul had been independent before joining as the 6th charter member. Dayton joined for the 1993-94 season, but unfortunately for them, their program was at its historical nadir.
Cincinnati was the most consistent program in the 4 years of the conference; they were 30-14 in 4 seasons of conference play and featured stars like Herb Jones, Nick Van Exel, and head coach Bob Huggins who had rebuilt a floundering UC program when he arrived in 1989. He led them to a Final 4 in 1992, an Elite 8 in 1993 which featured an overtime loss to eventual champion North Carolina, and 2 other NCAA appearances in that timespan. But 1992 still remains the high water mark in the last half century for the Bearcats; they whacked Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout, avenged an earlier loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament, and would also beat then-Memphis State 4 times in the same season. Click here to see them defeat the Tigers to earn a trip to the Final 4 in Minneapolis that season. The Bearcats also won all 4 Great Midwest Conference Tournaments and further tormented Memphis by beating them each year en route to their titles!
Memphis was not far behind at 25-19; the Tigers themselves had a memorable season in 1991-92 as well. Led by All-American guard Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, the Tigers upset Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament and defeated giant-killer Georgia Tech before bowing out to Cincinnati in the Elite 8. They would also qualify for the 1993 NCAA Tournament and had a rare losing year in 1994 before rebounding the following season. Even that season almost featured a Cinderella run in conference tournament play; they upset UAB and Saint Louis before losing to the hometown Cincinnati Bearcats in the final. Led by Lorenzen Wright, the Tigers would win the regular season title in 1994-95 and also make it to the Sweet 16 that season.
Marquette would actually have a better record in 4 seasons of conference play (28-16), but they weren’t as successful as the Tigers were when it came to postseason play. Their best season was in 1993-94 when they won the Great Midwest regular season title and would advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in the post-Al McGuire era before losing to Duke. One of their more notable players was William Gates; he was a co-star with Arthur Agee in the documentary film Hoop Dreams. Although the film was devoted largely to their high school careers, Gates would be an on again/off again player at Marquette before ultimately earning a degree at Marquette. Marquette would also make the NCAA Tournament in 1992-93 and would finish as the NIT runner-up in 1995.
UAB was still relatively new to Division I ball when they joined the conference; they had actually transitioned up to Division I after Gene Bartow left UCLA in the late 1970s. The glory days for the Blazers were in the early 1980s (in their Sun Belt days) that featured a trip to the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 in 1981 and 1982, respectively. In the Great Midwest, the Blazers had a pedestrian 22-22 record that saw an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1993-94 preceded by two NIT appearances (including a trip to the NIT Final 4 in 1993 before losing to eventual runner-up Georgetown).
DePaul had enjoyed many years of success as an independent under the father-son head coaching duo of Ray and Joey Meyer. Joey Meyer would make the NCAA Tournament in 7 of his first 8 seasons, although Sweet 16 appearances in 1986 and 1987 were later vacated due to NCAA violations. After tying with Cincinnati for the regular season title in the Great Midwest in 1992, the Blue Demons would reach the NCAAs for the last time under Joey Meyer. The next 3 seasons saw a steady decline in the Blue Demons’ program, although they did qualify for the NIT in the 1994 and 1995 seasons. DePaul would finish 21-23 in their 4 seasons of Great Midwest play.
Saint Louis was 17-27 during their tenure in the Great Midwest Conference due to their first two seasons being downright horrific; they only managed a home win over DePaul in that timeframe. But the Billikens did manage a swift turnaround with Charlie Spoonhour as head coach; they improved from a 5-23 season in 1991-92 to a 23-6 season 2 years later that also featured a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 37 seasons. The following season featured a return trip to the NCAAs and even included a win against Minnesota in the 1st round before falling to top-seeded Wake Forest in the 2nd round.
Last, and certainly least are the Dayton Flyers. While the Flyers had a storied history that included multiple NIT titles and a trip to the 1968 NCAA Championship, their talent cycle had completely bottomed out under head coach Jim O’Brien. They finished 1-23 in their 2 seasons of conference play with their only win coming against a ranked Saint Louis team at home in 1993-94. Oliver Purnell took over as head coach for the 1994-95 season, but he was ultimately able to rebuild the Flyers after a season that saw them go winless in conference play in 1995.
With major realignment taking place after the 1994-95 season that saw the Southwest Conference dissolve, all the original members of the Great Midwest Conference would join Louisville, UNC-Charlotte, Southern Miss, Tulane and South Florida (from the Metro Conference) and Houston (orphaned from the Southwest Conference) in the newly-formed Conference USA. Dayton would be invited to the Atlantic 10 along with Xavier, Virginia Tech, La Salle and Fordham after the A-10 lost West Virginia and Rutgers to the Big East.