You Gotta See This: Big South
October, 1, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
AP Photo/David SmithIf you are a fan of up-tempo basketball, then you are a fan of VMI.It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: the noble speed freaks of Virginia Military Institute.
Let's be clear from the start: Stylistically speaking, there is no right or wrong way to play the game of basketball. There are only wins and losses. Everything else -- from a coach's philosophy to aesthetic preference to good old-fashioned matchup strategy -- is only so much interior detail.
In other words, up-tempo basketball does not equal winning basketball. Or vice versa. There are strategic advantages and disadvantages, and personnel is the key, but no system is so good it can succeed of its own merits alone. For fans, everything is subjective. Some people really love slow, deliberate, physical basketball. Others saw their hoops holy grail in Phoenix in 2005 and walk the Earth like Jules from "Pulp Fiction," casting about desperately for anything that might vaguely approximate it.
I'll admit it: I am in the latter camp. For every magnificent fiber of this sport, college basketball in 2013 can be too slow, too plodding, too careful -- smothered by helicopter coaches deathly afraid of leaving their livelihoods to chance. When a coach openly defies this trend, it's worth taking notice. When a coach does so, and then doesn't win all that much, and then keeps on doing it anyway -- well, that's when you've really got my attention.
That coach exists. His name is Duggar Baucom. He coaches the Virginia Military Institute Keydets. And his teams play fast. Always. Win or lose. That's all you really need to know.
Just in case, let's demonstrate: Since 2005-06, when Baucom came from Division II Tusculum College, VMI has finished outside the top 10 nationally in adjusted tempo only once, in his first season. To the right is a list of VMI's adjusted tempo figures -- and their won-lost records -- since.
In the past seven seasons, as part of Baucom's strategy, VMI has focused its efforts on turning opponents over and attempting to win the game on offense. This always leads to two things. The first is awful defense; the Keydets have finished a season ranked higher than 300th defensively only twice in the past eight years. The second? Thoroughly entertaining basketball!
In fact, that's the real marvel here. VMI has a system. That system is a joy to watch, but it does not yield consistent victories. VMI's coach has stuck with that immensely enjoyable system even as it has failed to bear consistent fruit -- and risked becoming a sideshow -- because he thinks it’s the best way his team can play basketball.
Which is exactly why you've got to, got to, got to see VMI. The Keydets may not always be successful, even in the forgiving context of the Big South. But they are guaranteed to thrill -- for better and for worse.