- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LEXINGTON, Va. -- The Virginia Military Institute scores 101.9 points per contest, an NBA-caliber average despite the 40-minute college game. Division I's only triple-digit scoring attack is on the verge of leading the country for the third straight season. According to one of the team's two 20-point scorers, VMI's philosophy can be summed up in eight little words.
"Shoot the ball before you turn it over," senior guard Travis Holmes said.
Fourth-year Keydets coach Duggar Baucom instituted VMI's relentless up-tempo attack before the 2006-07 season. The first two years of the experiment led to a lot of empty offensive possessions, and the Keydets struggled to a pair of losing seasons, finishing sixth in the Big South in 2006-07, then fifth in 2007-08. But this season, after early conference wins over the league's reigning tournament (Winthrop) and regular-season (UNC-Asheville) champions, as well as a season-opening nonconference stunner over Kentucky at Rupp Arena, things have been different.
All of a sudden, VMI (7-2) isn't a harmless gimmick anymore.
"When we started this, and let's be honest here, we were bringing a knife to a gunfight," Baucom said in an office dotted with NCAA plaques listing the team's recent scoring accomplishments. "But we're getting better at this. We've got bullets now."
The 2008-09 version of VMI's team produces a hyperathletic brand of hoops you won't find anywhere else in the country. The team is a yellow blur of weaves, screens and kick-outs on offense, and pants-dissolving strips on D. Refs have to be alert at all times because of all the balls tipped out of bounds. The Keydets put up points whenever they want or need to, have no trouble with the newly reconfigured 3-point line (they're shooting 39.2 percent from downtown so far) and force more offensive fouls in the backcourt with their press than any team has a right to. In short, VMI is as close to the Harlem Globetrotters as rulebook-based basketball can offer.
Campbell University, from the Atlantic Sun conference, visited Cameron Hall on Tuesday night and left as the latest team to be sucked into the VMI vortex. Late in the first half, the Camels were shooting 62 percent yet losing by six points. After the break, Campbell head coach Robbie Laing watched helplessly with arms folded as the home team unfurled a 16-0 game-clinching run in five short minutes to the delight of a roaring crowd of cadets, many in full uniform. With the 88-76 win, VMI's record stands at 7-2, and the team already is halfway to its 2007-08 win total in less than a month.
When we started this, and let's be honest here, we were bringing a knife to a gunfight. But we're getting better at this. We've got bullets now.
"The risks with our system has always been the same," Baucom said. "I'm just glad that the rewards are getting better."
The risk-reward ratio hasn't always tilted in VMI's favor. Duggar's gambit dates back to the fall of 2006, when honors violations left the team without any players taller than 6-foot-7. With nothing to lose but pride after a 7-20 season, Baucom issued strict orders: The Keydets would take 100 shots per game, put up 50 3s and force as many turnovers as they could.
But with just seven scholarship players, executing the plan was difficult. VMI scored 101 points per game during the 2006-07 season but gave up a whopping 104 and managed a surprise trip to the Big South championship game at Winthrop only by temporarily changing its identity for the league tournament and using up as much shot clock as possible. The slow-down version of the team was 2-1, casting further doubt on whether the high-possession system would ever truly fly.
"I give major props to Coach for changing the system like that and for sticking with it," Holmes said. "New things are scary sometimes. It's not a normal college system, there are no big men at all. We went through a lot of adversity with it at the beginning, but things have gotten better."
Last season was slightly improved, with senior Reggie Williams leading the nation in scoring for a second straight season. Although VMI moved up a spot in the standings, late injuries and a five-game losing streak cost the Keydets a chance to make a real move. But behind the scenes, VMI's brand name was permeating the recruiting marketplace, and Baucom was receiving interest from talented players who were very interested in shooting first and asking questions later.
"I knew they had led the nation in scoring," said 6-4 freshman guard Michael Sparks, who averaged 19 points and eight rebounds for Tates Creek High in Lexington, Ky., good enough for a spot in the prestigious Indiana-Kentucky All-Star Game. "I loved the idea of playing for a team that just runs up and down the floor all game. When the coaches here recruited me, they told me I could fit in well."
Sparks has fit in just fine, averaging nine points per game for VMI. And the school will have a much easier time finding recruits after what happened a month ago.
On Nov. 14, VMI went to Sparks' hometown and faced down the Kentucky Wildcats and 22,579 Rupp Arena fans. The Keydets made an instant impression, hitting seven of their first eight 3-point attempts and forcing their hosts to make 25 turnovers. After a shocking 111-103 win, Baucom was besieged with phone calls, text messages and interview requests, just as Gardner-Webb head coach Rick Scruggs was a year ago when his squad backdoored the Wildcats to death.
"I was on TV in San Diego, and all the Virginia newspapers did great stories about us," Baucom remembered. "But the real aftermath of the Kentucky win was an eight-hour bus ride home."
After all the adversity and losing the program has been through, the Keydets had no problems staying grounded.
"We've stayed humble," said guard Chavis Holmes, Travis' twin brother, who leads the team with 20.4 ppg. "There's still a lot of pressure on us to perform every night. The Kentucky game showed how good we can be. But if we don't win our conference, it's going to be a major disappointment."
In a pre-Christmas preview of Big South play, VMI took a couple of strides toward a long-awaited league championship. At home and on regional television, the Keydets destroyed Winthrop, the conference's dominant team of the past decade, overcoming a 12-rebound deficit to defeat the Eagles 92-74 on Dec. 3. They followed that up with a 114-105 win at regular-season champion UNC-Asheville on Saturday. After beating the Big South's two champions, VMI is two steps closer to a Big Dance bid that has eluded the school for 32 years.
And hanging in Cameron Hall are a pair of unassuming plastic banners that merely hint at the legacy the new generation of Keydets is attempting to recapture. In 1976, without a shot clock or 3-point line, VMI's "Runnin' Roos" averaged 76 points per game and dashed all the way to the Elite Eight. In the first round, that team eliminated Tennessee 81-75, the last SEC team to lose to VMI until this season's win over Kentucky. The following year saw a 20-game win streak and a Sweet 16 berth.
"Those were just five guys who played well together," Baucom said. "And Ron Carter, Will Bynum, John Krovic those guys still stay in touch with us. But it was 31 years ago, none of the kids on the team were even born then."
One bond the team from VMI's glory years shares with the current squad is the institute's tradition, its rigid discipline and its honor code that demands that cadets do not "lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do." The school was founded in 1839 and stands as the oldest state-supported military college in America. Students are subject to trials not found at most other state schools -- like "Hell Week," during which freshmen are cruelly indoctrinated by upperclassmen.
"I have no idea how I got through Hell Week," Sparks said, shaking his head and laughing. "I really don't."
Said Baucom: "The general public has no idea what these kids sacrifice to come here. They sleep on wooden cots. No cell phones, no video games, none of that. One of the things I have to worry about as a coach is if a player gets caught kissing a girl in the barracks, which is a violation punishable with demerits. That actually happened once. I'll bet you can't find too many schools out there in this country where kissing is a major offense."
But lately, the Keydets have found winning to be far more satisfying than stolen smooches ever could be. After two seasons of false starts following decades of futility, VMI's high-stakes, high-speed system is finally taking off.
"Thirty-one years is a long time," Baucom said. "There have been a lot of three-, four-win seasons during that stretch. This school hasn't been blessed with good basketball. But I knew from day one this summer that we have a special group. And this is such a great and unique school, it deserves to be represented with the kind of pride these kids have shown this year."
Kyle Whelliston is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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