Commentary

VMI's frenzied offense producing plenty of points

Kyle Whelliston checked out VMI's new helter-skelter style and learned that the style is not the only connection between the Keydets and Loyola Marymount.

Originally Published: December 12, 2006
By Kyle Whelliston | Special to ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Va. -- Seconds before tip-off in an unmercifully sweltering gym on an unseasonably steamy southern Virginia night, Cameron Hall's P.A. announcer switched on his microphone and addressed the small but exuberant assemblage.

The question posed was simple and direct.

"Are you ready?" the voice boomed. "Are you ready for some VMI Keydets basketball?"

The response was wild, roaring, testosterone-fueled approval from a line of red-shirted cadets (it's said that the team nickname derives from the Southern pronunciation of the word) who stood stationed in the first row of seats along the far sideline. But they're always ready for some VMI Keydets basketball ... the real question is, what about the rest of the world?

VMI's early-season results from its mid-November trip to the BCA Classic in Columbus, Ohio, seemed pedestrian enough on the surface: expected losses to Ohio State and Princeton, then a 104-89 win over D-I independent South Dakota State to end things in the consolation round. But people who were there said there was something very strange going on with the team in red and gold, the one with close-cropped hair that topped out at 6-foot-7.

"We came to our current system because we lost two key players from last year to honors violations," said VMI head coach Duggar Baucom, whose team went 7-20 overall a season ago (2-14 in the Big South Conference). "Our starting post guy -- 6-9 guy -- and our point guard. So we said, let's try something different. And if we can be different, let's be way different."

That something exploded on the national hoops consciousness three days after the team's return from Columbus, in VMI's first home game. Against the NAIA's Virginia Intermont College, the Keydets ripped open the record book in a 156-95 victory. VMI's numbers were staggering -- 118 shot attempts (61 from beyond the arc), 35 steals, 78 points in each half. The box score was zipped around among basketball writers and posted on message boards as if it were a freak photo of a three-headed alien baby, but coming from the school that had given the world comedians Fred Willard and Dabney Coleman, it somehow didn't seem all that shocking.

"We had an intrasquad scrimmage early on," senior guard Fred Robinson said. "And it changed right there. Coach gave us goals; he said he wanted us to get off 100 shots, 50 3s, and force as many turnovers as we can each game. Just try to force the tempo as much as we can."

Another unofficial goal the 2006-07 Keydets have flirted with regularly has to do with raw possessions per game, or the number of times a team gets a fresh 35-second clock to work with. In a stat with a national median in the low 70s, VMI has busted past the 100-possession mark six times in its first 13 games, including a 116-possession performance in a 144-127 win over another NAIA squad, Southern Virginia. And because Division I opponents such as Mercer and Howard have had no choice but to be swept up in the floor-blistering tempo (although both were able to survive with wins), VMI games this season have averaged 191 possessions between both teams. In other terms, that means the ball changes hands roughly every 15 seconds.

That's exhausting just to think about or even to watch, much less to play. In theory, at least, the team's energy is metered efficiently by a system of shifts. Baucom's system isn't a regimented five-in, five-out like some other super-tempo squads; the loosely drawn first unit is led by Williams and hyperefficient 6-foot-7 senior forward Matt Murrer (who last season was second in the country in points per shot). The second shift, which usually is on the court for the same amount of time as the first, is headed by identical 6-4 sophomore twins Chavis Holmes and Travis Holmes, who came into the 2006-07 season with identical majors (business) and identical per-game scoring highs (20).

"I love the new system," said Chavis Holmes, the one with the telltale 3 on his jersey. "Coach just wants us to shoot the ball. We struggled with it a little at the beginning, but it's paying off for us now."

But anybody expecting a full-throttle daredevil freak show from VMI might leave disappointed. When the offense clicks, and it did for a four-minute stretch Monday evening against South Carolina State, it does so in a surprisingly deliberate and calm manner. The Keydets compiled a 20-7 first-half run by bouncing gently around the perimeter, running weaves and screens, and taking the first shot (usually a 3) that the defense gave them. Because this often happened within four or five passes, there were plenty of shots for everybody in the course of the game.

"This works," said junior leading scorer Reggie Williams (26.5 ppg), a man of far more 3-point shots (101 to date) than words, as he flashed a broad smile. "We're just playin' this year."

And what makes the Keydets' system, or any up-tempo scheme, work is that the team maximizes the number of chances at the basket with punishing pressure defense. VMI features three different versions of the full-court press; against an initially overwhelmed opponent like S.C. State (20 first-half turnovers), two wildly gyrating bodies guarding every inbound after a made basket sometimes can be the next best thing to the "you make it, you take it" rule on the playground. The Bulldogs were greeted by three straight steals to start the game, which prompted coach Jamal Brown to pull his team aside after only 90 seconds of clock time for an impromptu scream session.

"The frustrating part about it is that we prepared for this," Brown said afterward. "We prepared all week, playing five-on-six in practice. We knew they were a team that forced 30 turnovers a game, and we turned the ball over to them. Our focus wasn't there. We let them do what they do, and we didn't do what we needed to do."

* * *

The history of up-tempo hoops mostly has been written in places like this, in the lower D-I conferences and in the lower divisions. Schools like former Missouri Valley member Grinnell and the Californian speed demons at the University of Redlands are all over the record books in categories like 3s taken and points scored, and just two weeks ago, Lincoln (Pa.) scored 201 points in a game to shatter the all-time Division III record for single-game team scoring. Coach Ben Jobe's "shoot every eight seconds" edict lifted SWAC stalwart Southern to a 1993 first-round tournament upset against Georgia Tech, and that style has been the dominant one in that conference ever since.

But the entertaining run and fun (and press) style made its primary national splash in the early 1990s with little Loyola Marymount, a team led by electrifying and ultimately tragic Hank Gathers. The Lions still hold a bevy of scoring records -- points per game in a season (122.4 in 1990), points scored and shots attempted by a Division I team (186 and 245, in two separate games against U.S. International back in 1991 and 1989, respectively), and points in an NCAA tournament game (a 149-115 upset win over Michigan in 1990).

And there's an invisible, haunted link that connects VMI and the glory days of LMU: hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the thickening of the heart muscle that claimed Gathers' life in a WCC Tournament game March 4, 1990. It's the same disease Baucom was diagnosed with a year later in 1991, and he has been living with it ever since.

"It hit me. I had my first heart attack at 30," Baucom said. "I've had a pacemaker since then, but I never had any problems at all until last year."

VMI's head coach missed seven games last season after his pacemaker replacement developed faulty wiring, but he's fully cleared to coach after his fifth operation in August, a series of procedures that included a visit to a Florida specialist who cut a hole in his heart to remove the device. Baucom, who stands on the sidelines and paces excessively throughout every game, fully grasps the irony inherent in mixing heart-quickening hoops and heart conditions.

"I always loved those Paul [Westhead] teams at Marymount," Baucom said wistfully. "I loved watching them, how'd they go jet fire to the corners, all of that. We'd love to do that stuff, but we play to the extent of our personnel. This is just what we've come up with."

Despite its status as the oldest state-supported military college in America, VMI doesn't have access to the same caliber of athlete than Westhead did at LMU. Therefore, the greatest risk with VMI's style is a collective failure of flesh, and in hot Cameron Hall on Monday night, the Keydets came out paper-flat to start the second half. In what's both a no-no and an uh-oh for a team that's most comfortable in the triple-digit scoring range, the home team was stuck at a single score -- 58 points -- for three entire minutes. In the meantime, revitalized S.C. State enjoyed the fruits of successful attacks on the hyperspeed system -- open layups -- to zap away a 16-point deficit and break into the lead at 64-61.

Shots flew wide left and right; the full-court press became more like a gentle good-natured prod; and suddenly VMI looked like a very ordinary and unknown basketball team. Baucom responded the only way he could: He scrapped the shift system and rode a quintet of his top players -- Murrer, Williams, the Holmes twins and Robinson -- as far as guts, grit and foul trouble would propel them.

"Around the 16-minute mark, at the first media [timeout], we just looked stagnant," Baucom said of his shift in policy. "Our second shift was giving us nothing. So I said to my assistants, 'Let's just go with my top guys; let's try to ride this out.' And Matt played super tonight."

What had threatened to break out into another in a series of finger-popping, "Sweet Georgia Brown"-whistling fun in the first half was suddenly an angry, sweat-drenched trench battle. Both teams went into the double bonus with nine minutes left in regulation, and the Keydets -- thoroughly gassed Murrer in particular -- used every second of stopped play to catch their breath and grab their knees in exhaustion.

"That's just the way the game developed and evolved," a thoroughly soaked Murrer said minutes after time had expired, balancing his inability to stay standing up with the reverie of his 32-point career high. "Usually the second shift comes in for a while, but Coach kept me out there because I was hot or something ... actually, sorry, I'm kinda sick."

Not as sick as the visiting Bulldogs felt once they finally blinked. A bunny jumper by Robinson with 3:27 left started a 10-0 game-breaking run to seal a 99-87 victory and a return to the VMI Keydets basketball the small crowd had been ready for. Once again, the white-clads tipped inbound passes, forced out-of-bounds lobs, and started running the plays that earned them open looks from the arc. The cadets along the sideline erupted into crazed, full-throated applause.

And in adherence to VMI tradition, the Keydet players used their last energies standing at center court after the buzzer. As the band played the school hymn, the players faced the formerly raucous cadets, both groups in the same pose -- upright, square-jawed, fisted hands held close to sides. That discipline might end up seeing these new-style Keydets through, especially once they return to Big South play at the turn of the calendar. There certainly will be times, like this particular evening, when the 3s aren't falling, the bodies are failing and the gimmicks run flat, but VMI has what Grinnell, Redlands and even LMU never had: the discipline that rubs off simply from attending a military school.

"We are a little more structured offensively than some of the other [up-tempo teams]," Baucom said. "We run a lot of sets to get our shooters shots. And we do focus on having everyone on the same page at all times."

It does remain to be seen, though, whether the bodies of the players on that page will hold up -- Baucom's 100-shot, 50-3s, full-throttle system will fly or die as the long season wears on. So far, it has gained the school five wins (two short of last year's overall total), and a mere 13 games into the experiment, there's already available groundwork for the next generation of Virginia Military Madness.

"This has never happened before at VMI," the coach said with an eye twinkle. "The other day, two prep school kids called up and said, 'Coach, we're available, come watch us play.' Let me tell you, I was floored."

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Kyle Whelliston

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Kyle Whelliston has contributed to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage since 2005. He covers mid-major programs for Basketball Times magazine, and will have a basketball travelogue of the 2008-09 season published next summer. Whelliston also founded midmajority.com and statistical database site Basketball State (bbstate.com).

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