AP Photo/Gerry Broome
VMI 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."