Today, J.D. Barnett, undoubtedly one of the few Western folk heroes to walk off a campus in Richmond, was talking about losing, something he rarely has to discuss.

"I would feel very empty if we lost," he said. "I'd like to see us take another step with this program. Yeah, I'd be empty. It's a little harder for Virginia Commonwealth to get national exposure, and this is our chance."

Barnett, 41, blond, and incredibly nervous, is on the verge of the biggest moment of his life. Should his 12th-ranked Rams, seeded second in the NCAA West Regional, defeat seventh-seeded Alabama Sunday at 4:15 (EST), he will have taken VCU past the one hurdle he has never conquered -- the NCAA's second round.

Three times in the last four years, VCU, the Sun Belt Conference champion, has tried to stay with the NCAA's elite. The Rams won one game each time, but just couldn't keep up. They lost second-round games to Tennessee, Georgia and Syracuse.

But, this season, they beat Auburn, Virginia Tech and Alabama-Birmingham. They have won 26 times and lost only five times, and only once in the last three weeks, to Memphis State, 81-73.

They've become an NCAA favorite, fortuitously placed in the West, where winning just might be a little easier. And suddenly, it's time to know them.

A couple of explanations are in order. First, Barnett is not another Bob Knight, in spite of appearances.

So he glares and scowls and puts people on their heels. So he badgers officials on his knees (he always watches games from knee-level) when he leads by 20 points. So he screams at players for taking dumb shots with games well in hand, and yells so hard at his team after games that you can hear it through cinder-block walls.

He admits that he and Knight agree on team concept and discipline and both are intense and "tend to be verbal," but that's it.

"He likes to fish," Barnett said. "I don't."

Next, it's important to discuss the towel Barnett always holds, balled-up in his hand. This isn't a nonchalant John Thompson towel. This one is necessary.

By his best guess, Barnett has vomited, during games, six to 12 times this season.

"I don't really throw up," he said today. "I gag a little bit."

For this reason, he won't eat before games. Yet, sometimes, the game just gets to be too much to handle. Against Old Dominion in the Sun Belt tournament final, observers say he spent the final minutes on his knees, towel over his face, gagging.

VCU won, 87-82, in a game Barnett later said was "like two artists out there drawing, making two beautiful pictures." Both teams shot way over 50 percent.

Barnett, who has compiled a superlative 132-47 record in six seasons at VCU, explains his, er, problem this way.

"I have a nervous stomach. It's the weakest part of my constitution. Everyone has a weak part of the body, and mine is my stomach.

"I'm a hyper person. I'm a nervous person. I put my life into coaching, and I see it unfolding in 40 minutes out there on the floor."

His teams don't fast break, or turn the ball over much, or make many mistakes. He never changes his lineup. Ever. He has started the same five players all year.

"I think this team is pretty businesslike and methodical," he said after an 81-65 first-round victory over Marshall Friday night. He clearly likes that.

A glance at this starting lineup speaks volumes about the team. Senior guard Rolando Lamb, 22, was averaging 6.6 points per game through his first three seasons. This season, he ballooned to 16.6, best on the team.

He says the reason is that he became a born-again Christian and found God.

Barnett says he found his jump shot.

The other guard is senior Calvin Duncan, almost 24, the team's star his first three seasons. He averaged 15.2 points.

They are two of the "city kids" who on other teams undoubtedly would be unleashed to run and gun at will. Barnett will have none of that. He holds the reins tight, and his peers have noticed.

"Their guards have the ability to put on those shake-and-bake moves to get some attention," said Marshall Coach Rick Huckabay. "But they don't. They play within a system, and that's probably why they win."

Alabama, a team of considerable inside strength, will present the Rams' front court with its share of problems. VCU's big men actually are very small men, by basketball standards: senior center Mike Schlegel, 21, is 6-8; senior forward Neil Wake, 27, is 6-7; and junior forward Michael Brown, 22, is 6-5.

"But we stay even on the boards," Barnett said with pride. During the regular season, VCU had 32 more rebounds than opponents.

All the starters but Wake have scored more than 1,000 points in college. An NCAA statistician looked this up and found that Old Dominion is the only other school to have four 1,000-point scorers on the court at the same time.

They also are old, perhaps the oldest team in the NCAA. Their average age is 23, thanks in large part to Wake, who spent four years working for a data processing company in Washington, D.C., before deciding to go to junior college in Nebraska.

"Most of our players are urban kids with tremendous pride," Barnett said.

And he relishes the job of turning them into a team.