This is a fun week for the Virginia Military Institute basketball team. The 1,200 men who make this the smallest Division I school in America are on spring break.
For a change, the basketball players are like basketball players at almost any other college. They sleep late, instead of rising at 6:30 a.m. for the march to mess hall. There's no curfew as opposed to the usual 11:30 p.m. lights-out in the barracks.
Later today a four-hour flight delay forced the team to drive to Raleigh and the first round of the NCAA regionals. The Keydets, who caught everyone by surprise a year ago when they reached the final sight, are favorites this time, by 3 1/2 points over Duquesne.
If this were Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor, Westwood or Lexington, Ky., this would be a week for pressure. But this is Lexington, Va., snug in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The rock music blates in the locker room at "The Pit," VMI's gym, as coach Charlie Schmaus conducts practice.
"We're approaching it loose," said Schmaus, one of the two rookie coaches in the 32 team NCAA tournament. "Our goal was to win the Southern Conference championship. Everything else is icing on the cake."
Tom Joynes, the VMI athletic director, stopped by practice to make last minute ticket arrangements and let his mind wander past Saturday in Raleigh to the semifinals of the Eastern Regionals Thursday in College Park, Mid.
"The marquee could say Kentucky, Notre Dame, North Carolina and VMI," he said. "They'd think it was a misprint."
"We're just going to have a good time," said VMI forward Ron Carter, one of the most exciting players in the State. "Being realistic, with the kind of team we have our chances of winning the national title are slim.
"We're not pressured at all. It's a team like Michigan that's got all the pressure on it. We're just going to have some fun, maybe win a couple of games and then go back to school."
VMI has one of those teams that you know the cliche - can beat anyone on a given night. Schmaus recruited this team for Bill Blair, who left him season for the University of Colorado, and now is the head coach himself.
Only now, in the wake of two straight NCAA trips, is VMI able to recruit the top-quality player. So Schmaus went after players with one distinction - shooting ability. And can the Keydets shoot: after two hours of tough practice, the finish each workout by running up and down the court shooting jump shots, a drill with which most teams being practice.
It works. VMI shot 66 per cent against then ninth-ranked Tennessee in the first round of NCAA play a year ago: center Dave Montgomery, the Keydets' most improved player, ranks second nationally with 66.1 per cent field-goal accuracy: the team itself ranks seventh in the nation, at 52.8 per cent.
"Both of us (Blair and Schmaus) are in the top 10 in VMI scoring history and we are looking for offensive-minded players," said Schmaus. "I think VMI has always been known traditionally as a defensive team that could hold the score down and lose by two points, that type of thing. We looked for players out of our mold, and we found them."
Indeed, the cast of this 25-3 team, which won 21 straight at one stage, is nearly the same as the group that won 10 of its last 11 games a year ago, finally falling to Rutgers in the Eastern Region final.
Six of the top seven players returned: only point guard Curt Reppart graduated.
Wil Bynum and Joe Krovic still hit those perimeter shots consistently; Carter excites the fans with his version of show time - he was averaging two dunks a game midway in the season: Montgomery reminds Schmaus of Paul Silas, "only to us he's a Silas and Bill Russell put together," Kelly Lombard has slimmed down and replaced Reppart, and George Borojovich, the 6-6 forward who can hardly run or jump, still comes off the bench and sinks 20-footers.
In a one-on-one contest, only Carter probably would hold his own.
"When our five get together, our talent exceeds other teams' talent," said Schmaus. "But, individually, our talent is probably the worst in the NCAA tournament. We know our limitations and don't try to go overboard; that's why our team is playing well together."
"We play as a team," said Montgomery, a 6-6 junior team from Baltimore, "Everything we do we do as a team; we box out as a team."
If you think Montgomery picked rebounding at random, you're wrong. That's what Schmaus is preaching to his team this week, since the Keydets are just about the slowest, shortest team in the NCAA playoffs.
"If we keep them off the boards, if we keep anybody off the boards, we should win," said Schmaus, "because we shoot well and don't make turnovers."
The Keydets left top reserve guard Steve Wagner at home with the measles.