- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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VMI encourages zaninessAP Photo/Gerry BroomeVMI senior Reggie Williams led the country in scoring last season with 28.1 points per game.
Last fall, coming off a 7-20 record and picked to finish dead last in the conference, VMI head coach Duggar Baucom gathered his ragtag collection of charges and issued three simple commands: Take 100 shots a game, hoist 50 from beyond the arc and generate 30 turnovers on defense.
What ensued was nothing short of mad science on the hardcourt. The 2006-07 Keydets seemed to tinker with the very nature of basketball itself, scoring more than 100 points a game and easily leading the country in assists, 3-pointers and offensive possessions. The school also set an all-time NCAA record for steals in a season with 490.
Big South opponents were unfazed by VMI's zaniness, however, putting up an average of 104 points against its cracked press-and-trap defense. As the curtain fell on the regular season, the Keydets found themselves on a sad bus back to Lexington, Va., after a 109-92 whipping at High Point. They had nothing to show for their efforts but a 5-9 league record and a No. 6 seed in the upcoming campus-site league tourney.
But the Keydets' head coach had one more experiment up his sleeve.
"We were riding back on the bus from High Point that Saturday night," Baucom said recently. "I told my assistant coach Daniel Willis, 'We're going to make a dramatic change at practice. We're gonna play zone in the tournament.' He answered me, 'You think that'll work?'"
Two days later, the Keydets were on Liberty's Vine Center floor preparing for their quarterfinal matchup with the No. 3-seeded Flames and installing 3-2 and 2-3 zones in a secret practice.
"We were very cautious, I was whispering in the gym," said Baucom. "You never know who might be watching or listening. But then the next night, after they won the tap, we didn't come trap on their guy dribbling and fell back into a 2-3. He looked back at the bench, like 'What are they doing?'"
What the Keydets were doing was pulling off one of the greatest displays of misdirection in all of college hoops last season. VMI stunned Liberty in a 79-78 upset, then avenged their previous loss at High Point by shocking the unprepared No. 2-seeded Panthers, 91-81. In the title game at Winthrop, VMI nearly stole the conference crown, coming within a missed 3-pointer of forcing overtime against a 27-win squad with at-large aspirations.
"Some good friends of mine asked me, 'Coach, why didn't you play that way all year?'" Baucom said. "I told them it was because I didn't want to win seven games again. Had we tried to match up with teams, we would have had a similar fate to the year before. 6-7 was our biggest kid last year. I think the element of surprise really helped us in that run."
Indeed, the Big South has had an entire summer to catch up on watching tape of the 14-19 tournament runner-ups. So what's VMI cooking up in its laboratory for 2007-08?
"Defensively, we'll do a hybrid approach, mix in some different zones with our pressure," said Baucom. "We're still going to dictate the offensive tempo, still going to spread teams out and take the first available shot. Our goal will be to have five scoring threats on the floor at all times. I think we've established ourselves as pretty hard to guard."
Perhaps the hardest to guard is senior Reggie Williams, the leading returning scorer in America. The 6-foot-5 guard scored 28.1 ppg on 53.1 percent shooting a season ago. He tested the NBA draft waters in the spring but returned to school with renewed purpose.
"He really dedicated his summer to basketball, playing pickup and lifting," said Baucom. "I actually expect a better Reggie than I had last year. He knows this is his last go-round, his last chance to impress everybody, because his dream is to play at the next level. But I have no problem with that, because I know how unselfish he is. I never have to get on Reggie for taking bad shots."
As the legend of VMI grows, Baucom has found increased success luring recruits to play in his super-charged, share-the-wealth system. He'll bring in seven freshmen this season, including guards Christian Hunter and Austin Kenon. Both will be counted on to log minutes at the point.
"It's been amazing, the response from kids to what we did last year," said Baucom. "But the craziest thing is the response from coaches who want me to come speak at clinics, who want to sit down and talk to me about what we do. I'm speaking at a clinic in West Virginia next month, one of my assistants asked me what I'm going to talk about and I said, 'VMI basketball.' He asked me if he should get out the smoke and mirrors to bring along with me."
Parlor tricks or not, VMI basketball is full of little unconventional tweaks and hacks engineered to overcome height and skill deficits. For instance, Baucom will often position four players at halfcourt on VMI free throws instead of along the sides of the key.
"We always have supreme confidence in our foul shooter, but if he does miss, we're going to trap 'em," Baucom explained. "We had a couple of 10-second counts on missed free throws last year. I don't think that's ever happened before."
A lot of what occurred at VMI hasn't happened before -- the national leaderboards and record books are testament to that. Last season's eye-popping numbers, followed by the surprising tourney run, have spurred Baucom's growing reputation as a daring strategist who isn't afraid to smash the molds of convention and try just about anything. Except, perhaps, coming right out with it and wearing a white lab coat on the sidelines.
"Everybody has to be known for something, I guess," Baucom laughed. "If I'm known as a mad scientist now well, I suppose I could be called worse things."
The American south, that expansive and eclectic country-within-a-country with no generally agreed-upon borders, is indeed big. The Big South, on the other hand, is very small. The conference based in the Carolinas and Virginia only features eight members for the second straight school year, which ties it for tiniest among Division I hoop leagues with the WCC, Patriot and Ivy League.
That will change next summer, though, as the conference will grow to 10 members. The Blue Hose of Presbyterian College will make their D-I debut, and Gardner-Webb will move in after a final season in the Atlantic Sun.
For a league that ended up 29th (third-to-last) in the conference RPI standings last season, it's not too surprising that half the Big South's teams will feature new leadership in 2007-08.
But of the four teams that changed coaches, only one departure was due to a performance-related firing: Liberty's Randy Dunton was let go after the 2006-07 season ended. Radford's Byron Samuels had put in his one-year notice the previous summer. Winthrop's Gregg Marshall moved on to Wichita State in April, and Coastal Carolina's Buzz Peterson took a front-office job with the Charlotte Bobcats.
* NCAA Tournament
Fast break Charleston Southern
Say this about last year's 8-22 Bad News Bucs: There was far more defeat than quit in that bunch. An injury-riddled squad ended the year with eight players (including two walk-ons) and somehow kept its frustration in check -- Charleston Southern led the Big South in least fouls, committing only 17 per game. Buccaneer boss Barclay Radebaugh will regain the services of 2005-06 standouts like senior guard Chris Moore, a 13 ppg scorer coming back from a broken foot, and 6-8 returning redshirt Vernon Huger, who led the team in rebounds two seasons ago. Radebaugh also will welcome incoming East Carolina transfer Quinton Goods, a 6-7 forward who will have three years of eligibility remaining.
New head coach Cliff Ellis inherits a team with some serious post problems -- the Chanticleers finished seventh in the league in rebounding and lost 7.0 rpg man Moses Sonko to graduation. "If Coastal has been suspect in the last few years, it's been at the center position," said Ellis. "We'll have a few freshmen try out there, [6-8] Bryant Wallace and [6-10] Jon Pack. But our guard play is definitely the strength of our team." Indeed, there are plenty of backcourt riches on Ellis' new squad. Senior shooter Jack Leasure is a former freshman of the year who led the team with 15.6 ppg last season, and CCU features last season's FOY in speedy 5-11 point guard Joshua Mack.
Winthrop has had the league's superior talent for a decade now, but the Panthers have closed the gap in recent years and are the best-stocked team this time around. Along with senior Arizona Reid, the returning POY, High Point also boasts a solid senior point guard in Mike Jefferson (11.4 ppg, 4.3 apg). There's also a rising sophomore core that includes likely starters in 6-2 two-guard Gene Harris and 6-11 shotblocker Cruz Daniels. If the Panthers are to fulfill their destinies as Big South champs, however, they'll have to become tougher mentally. Bart Lundy and this troops were out-psyched and out-coached in a pair of losses to Winthrop, as well as in a season-ending Big South semifinal exit on their home court against VMI.
"Transition year" is generally code for the mediocrity that comes in upheaval's wake, but Liberty's last 12 months truly have been chock-full of change. When Providence transfer Dwight Brewington became eligible in December, a 6-1 start was unraveled by an eight-game slide and horrendous on-court chemistry. When the conference tournament No. 3 seed fell at home to VMI, head coach Randy Dunton and his staff were fired the next morning and quickly replaced by former New Mexico bench boss Ritchie McKay. Furthermore, school founder and Flames superfan Jerry Falwell died in May, though his image lives on in a giant mural in the newly renovated men's basketball office. Now, without graduated Larry Blair, the nation's 15th leading scorer (20.4 ppg), McKay will oversee the traditional kind of "transition year."
Before Winthrop's NCAA first-round triumph over Notre Dame, this was the only Big South team with an NCAA win. OK, so it was the 2003 opening-round game, but still. The Bulldogs haven't enjoyed a winning season since 2000-01. They went 15-17 that championship year, and have broken the .500 barrier only thrice during Eddie Biedenbach's 11-season tenure. The task of improving upon last year's 12-19 campaign will fall to a veteran squad that includes senior backcourt mates Bryan Smithson and K.J. Garland (combined 26.4 ppg) and fascinating 7-7 behemoth Kenny George. With a schedule featuring the most UNCA home games in a quarter-century (16) -- including evenly matched nonconference contests against Furman, Campbell and Buffalo -- the Bulldogs will get their chances.
Radford seemed like a program on the rise after a 16-13 mark two seasons ago. But soon thereafter, Byron Samuels announced that the 2006-07 season would be his last as Highlander commander. The lame-duck coach presided over a dead-duck season, as Radford compiled a 8-22 (3-11 BSC) record, went 1-13 on the road (losing by an average of 13 points) and finished last in the conference in turnovers. New leader Brad Greenberg, fresh off brother Seth's bench at Virginia Tech, will get to start his program from scratch. The top two scorers Chris Oliver and Reggie McIntyre graduated, but sophomore point guard Amir Johnson (11.2 ppg, 3.7 apg) just might be a keeper.
Chavis and Travis Holmes are identical 6-4, 195-pound junior twins who are having twice the fun in coach Dugger Baucom's free-flowing system. Chavis was last year's second-leading scorer behind Williams with 19.2 ppg, primarily on the strength of 108 made 3s. Travis, the conference Defensive POY, led the country in steals (3.4 spg) and chose an excellent time to achieve a career-high of 29 points: the nationally televised title game against Winthrop. "I talk to the twins a lot about [last season] being their coming-out party," said Baucom. "I understand from their pickup games and offseason workouts that they've moved up to another level now."
The Eagles' 2007-08 campaign will be dedicated to the late De'Andre Adams, Winthrop's backup point guard. The 5-8 Adams was always an instant jolt of energy off the bench, and he also hit a key 3-pointer during WU's historic NCAA upset of Notre Dame. Adams died on May 16, four days after a single-car accident in which he swerved to miss a downed tree in the road near his Atlanta home. He would have been a junior this season. "He was so full of enthusiasm," said coach Randy Peele. "The guy had the power to make people smile. He attracted people into our program, from young kids to older folks. They would see him dance in pregame warmups, and they just fell in love with him."
In a relatively down season for the league as a whole, Winthrop compiled the greatest season in Big South history by winning 29 games and engineering an 11-over-6 upset of Notre Dame in the NCAA Tourney, the league's first second-round appearance. After winning seven Big South championships in nine years, the Eagles finally broke through at the NCAA's.
When Greg Marshall parlayed his success into the Wichita State job, he invited longtime assistant Randy Peele along. But Peele stayed in Rock Hill to take the reins of the Winthrop program. While Peele won't do much to change the intricate set-based offense the Eagles run, he will have to deal with the eligibility exhaustion of Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams, three of their top four scorers. Factor in transfers and defections, and the defending conference champions will return just seven players.
The Eagles do return leading scorer Michael Jenkins (14.8 ppg) as a senior but will mix in six new freshmen in 2007-08. Winthrop will likely be the presumptive pick to win the league again on name recognition alone, even if the league's heavyweight champ might have lost a step.
"I know that people around the league feel like this is their opportunity," said Peele. "We've come back to the pack in a way. You're taking away three four-year starters from us. There's a lot of roster turnover here. They smell blood, and that motivates me every single day like you can't believe."
It's back-to-back trips for Winthrop, the only school in Big South history to win an NCAA Tournament game. Last year, the Eagles knocked off Notre Dame. What's next?
-- Joe Lunardi
For all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here.
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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