Charge of the Lightning Brigade
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
LEXINGTON, Va. -- When men's basketball practice opened here at Virginia Military Institute this fall, Coach Duggar Baucom discovered two of his top players had been kicked off the team for violating the school's code of conduct. Four legitimate Division I players remained on his roster.
Baucom figured the Keydets could play traditionally and get beat by a lot or try to slow the game to a snail's pace and get beat by less. During a late-night phone call, he and assistant Daniel Willis hashed out how to salvage the season and finally reached a conclusion: If we're going to be different, let's be dramatically different.
With practice already underway and the season opener looming, Baucom and Willis implemented a high-powered brand of play not seen in Division I since the late 1980s -- basketball in a blender, only faster and more fun to watch. The results have been dramatic. As the Keydets (5-8) prepare to play at Richmond on Wednesday, they lead the nation in scoring at 102.1 points per game, 10.5 more than second-place Georgia and 11.7 more than third-place North Carolina. They've scored 156, 144 and 135 points in wins. They've scored 111, 103 and 94 in losses.
So how did VMI, a team from the Big South Conference that hasn't finished with a winning record since 1998, a team once known for the stodgy style that marks most military schools, become a shot-chucking, full-court pressing, point-scoring machine?
"There is a method to our madness," Baucom said. "But sometimes, it looks just like madness."
Baucom believed the best way to keep games close would be to wear down teams with conditioning and increased possessions. That would make points less valuable, a sort of hard-court inflation. If VMI trailed 50-35 in the second half, it would be like being down 30. If VMI trailed 90-75, it would be like being down eight or so.
VMI would create this pace using constant full-court pressure, trapping the ball wherever it went. On offense, the Keydets would freewheel, launching every open shot they found. They would sub in a fresh five players every two minutes, like hockey shifts, to maintain the frenzy. They would need to create extra possessions to make up for all the missed shots, so all but one player would crash the offensive boards.
Baucom introduced the new system during an intrasquad scrimmage, outlining it for only one team. After the team using it won, 125-111, Baucom shepherded the team into its meeting room and showed them the eye-popping stat sheet
"That's how we're going to play," Baucom said. "These will be your stats."
Players exchanged high-fives before Baucom outlined the team goals for each game: Shoot 100 shots, 50 of them three-pointers. Rebound 35 percent of the misses. Force 30 turnovers.
"It's pretty simple," senior forward Matt Murrer said. "If you're open, shoot it."
VMI tested its new system first against Division III Emory & Henry in an exhibition. Bob Johnson, a friend of Baucom's who coaches the Grinnell system at Emory & Henry, didn't know Baucom had created his own version of it. Gambling for steals and double-teaming at any cost, VMI surrendered gobs of open layups and easy 2-on-1 breaks. It also scored 85 points in the first half and won, 152-118.