washingtonpost.com
Charge of the Lightning Brigade
VMI Basketball Is Always in High Gear

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Shoot It

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.

Afterward, Baucom offered to buy Johnson breakfast the next morning, so he could pick his brain about his offense. During a three-hour conversation, Johnson offered a warning. Fans would love the system, but basketball people will criticize you, tell you your team doesn't play enough defense.

No other Division I or II teams run the system, and there's a reason for it. To bring it to Division I, it would take a coach with nerve, unafraid of risks.

"My life," said Baucom, 46, "is a risk every day."

Scary Operation

Baucom became familiar with risk early in life. His entire family had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy -- the same disease that killed Hank Gathers, coincidentally a high scorer on Paul Westhead's breakneck Loyola Marymount teams. The condition causes the muscle walls of a heart to decay. It killed Baucom's father at 42 and his uncle, who was like a brother to Baucom, at 20.

It almost killed Baucom at 30. On Christmas Day 1990, Baucom had a heart attack and was rushed the hospital. Doctors implanted a pacemaker, which saved his life. But it also ended his career as a North Carolina state trooper.

Suddenly, Baucom was facing a forced career change. He became the varsity basketball coach at his alma mater, North Mecklenburg (N.C.) High School, where he had to give up his junior varsity job when he became a state trooper. He took classes at UNC Charlotte and completed his college degree in 1995. He was hired as an assistant at Davidson. He would bounce around schools in the south -- Mars Hill, Northwestern State, Western Carolina, Tusculum College -- for 10 seasons before finally landing his first Division I coaching job last season at VMI.

The Keydets opened last season with four straight losses, but then won their next five. His vision was taking hold. He loved the job. On Jan. 3, two days before VMI's first conference game, Baucom drove to Charlottesville for a standard operation at the University of Virginia's hospital for a new pacemaker. The operation should have taken an hour and a half.

When doctors opened his chest, they found the wires in pacemaker, 15 years old, had calcified. The old pacemaker was stuck in his chest, and they struggled to remove it. Baucom lay on the table for 6 1/2 hours as doctors pulled and prodded his chest.

The operation and chest trauma kept him bed-ridden for days and led to severe complications. Clotting caused his arm to swell to three times its normal size. He would spend 46 days in hospitals from Jan. 3 to Aug. 10, receiving five operations in four states. He saw a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., specialist, who replaced his pacemaker with a defibrillator.

Willis coached VMI while Baucom was away for 12 games. Baucom attended some games, but he could only stare ahead like a zombie. His dream season had vanished, but what he endured had at least made him healthy. He would receive another chance this year, feeling like a new man.

The Swarm

This season, VMI's new offense received a testing audition -- at Ohio State and on national television. The opening tip went to OSU's Mike Conley, a freshman McDonald's all-American, the kind of player VMI wouldn't dream of recruiting. Two Keydets swarmed him immediately.

"He was like, 'Oh, my God,' " Baucom said, laughing.

VMI fell behind by 16, but fell into a rhythm. When the Keydets start making three-pointers, even teams such as Ohio State become endangered. The full-court press sets up. Turnovers happen. Open three-point shots become available, or the Keydets throw it quickly ahead to Reggie Williams, who guards the inbounds passer. Teams can be buried in the avalanche: The Keydets were tied at 85 with South Carolina State with four minutes to play. With 1 minute 2 seconds left, they led 99-87.

Against Ohio State, VMI rallied and trailed by eight at halftime. It pulled to within five before the Buckeyes started hitting their three-pointers, and "that was all she wrote," Baucom said. VMI lost 107-69, but the result emboldened the coach -- this might actually work.

Opponents have attempted desperate measure to slow the pace against VMI. Army willingly passed up open layups. Some players tell Williams at the free throw line, "Man, y'all run a lot. How do y'all play like this?"

The players love the freedom of the offense, and the corps of cadets loves the excitement. They fill Cameron Hall, waving flags and standing the whole game. Players noticed on their way back to barracks, the cadets talk about basketball a whole lot more than they used to.

Still, some alums grumble about giving up layups and more than 100 points a game on a regular basis at a place where discipline reigns. Like every other student at VMI, the Keydets operate on a strict schedule of formations, mess halls and room inspections.

"It's our release," guard Willie Bell said. "You have to get all that stuff over the hill, and this is like back home, just playing ball."

When the Keydets walk anywhere on campus, they are greeted by a motto Stonewall Jackson once uttered, a creed stenciled on the wall above a mural in Baucom's office.

It reads, "You may be whatever you resolve to be."

After discovering two of his top players had been kicked off the team, VMI Coach Duggar Baucom decided to radically alter their style of play, and now lead the nation in scoring.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company