If this reads like a funeral lament, well, it’s not. Nobody died.
But it is a bit sad that Virginia Military Institute is leaving the Big South Conference after this school year. The Keydets’ basketball program has been a delightful statistical outlier during its 11-year stay in the Big South. VMI will return to the Southern Conference from whence it came in 2003, and probably most of the Big South league members won’t be sad to see the high-scoring Keydets depart.
“They play a way that’s different and you’re not used to it, and that’s the challenge, because you can’t simulate that in practice,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey.
Winthrop (9-8, 3-2 in Big South) hosts VMI (10-8, 3-2) Saturday at 4 p.m. in what will likely be the last meeting between the two schools.
“I’m never gonna miss coming to that arena,” VMI coach Duggar Baucom said Friday. “When Gregg Marshall was there I took enough butt-kickings to last a lifetime.”
Under Baucom, VMI has made scoring at a machine gun clip an annual staple. The Keydets have finished in the top-10 nationally in adjusted tempo (average number of possessions in a game) in eight of Baucom’s nine years at the helm, and currently lead the country in scoring at close to 90 points per game. Maximizing number of possessions has always been paramount in VMI’s game plan. Baucom’s theory is that playing faster makes possessions mean less, akin to the same way when government’s print more money, the individual bills mean less.
“We try to shoot it before we turn it over,” he said. “We’re shooting the first good, open shot, and if we miss it, we’re trying to rebound it. You can’t rebound a turnover, and most of the time, turnovers are run right back at you.”
The theory worked for the Keydets in VMI’s 18-point win over Winthrop last season; Baucom’s team had a 17:9 assist to turnover ratio; Winthrop’s was 8:17.
Baucom cultivated the idea of playing faster while coaching North Mecklenburg High School’s junior varsity team in Charlotte. When Baucom was hired at Division II Tusculum College, he put the theory into effect with great success. At VMI, he upped the tempo even more.
“It’s a little bit of hodge-podge and we’ve kind of made it our own,” said Baucom. “We’ve been doing it now for eight years, and we recruit to it, and our guys like it. It gives us the best chance of being competitive at VMI.”
VMI’s modus operandi has produced mixed results. In Baucom’s eight seasons prior to this year, the Keydets had three winnings campaigns and no NCAA appearances, despite reaching the conference tournament finals three times.
But Baucom maintains that the focus on offense has enabled him to recruit players that he never would have been privy to as the coach of a military school. The Keydets have also led the NCAA in scoring five straight seasons in a run that ended last year, broken 77 school records, and have generally been a thorn in the Big South’s collective side.
“It’s genius really at a military school like that, which has disadvantages in terms of recruiting,” said Kelsey. “But they’ve turned it into an advantage because they sell those young men on the incredibly unique style which they play.”
Regardless of opinion, VMI’s annual consistency in certain areas has to be admired. Despite playing the fastest basketball in the country, Baucom’s teams have never finished lower than 53rd nationally in offensive turnover percentage, and they’ve never finished better than 280th in defensive efficiency. The Keydets lost the 2012-13 Big South Player of the Year Stan Okoye to graduation and hardly flinched. Six-foot-tall freshman guard Q.J. Peterson entered the fray and is leading the conference in scoring at 20.3 points per game.
“We thought he was good, but he’s even a little bit better than we anticipated,” said Baucom. “When you lose Stan, who led the league in scoring and rebounding, you would expect a drop-off.”
Baucom can also lean on a talented pair of veterans, 6-foot-9 post player D.J. Covington and point guard Rodney Glasgow. Glasgow is leading the Big South in scoring in conference games, while Covington, who had 28 points and 12 rebounds in a 101-88 win over Radford on Jan. 15, has been a key piece in the paint by preventing teams from focusing their defense solely on the perimeter shooters.
“He’s the embodiment of spacing because he’s a monster down low. He’s skilled, he can finish around the rim, he can pass,” said Kelsey. “It makes it hard because you can’t just say, ‘Hey, make sure we stay out wide and lock on the 3-point shooters.’ It makes them a lot harder to guard.”
That’s a balance that Winthrop is still trying to pin down, but the Eagles have improved their shooting this season, hitting 38 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Andre Smith, Keon Moore, Christian Farmer and Keon Johnson are all accurate distance shooters. The long-range shooting has given Kelsey’s club more of a VMI-like feel, even if only slightly.
“I think he’s taken the reins off of them,” said Baucom. “This year they shoot it a lot quicker, and he’s got some guys that can shoot it.”
VMI arguably came closest to its finest Big South moment in the Winthrop Coliseum in 2006-07 when Marshall’s 29-5 team beat the Keydets on a late 3-pointer in the conference tournament final. Baucom said he had mixed feelings about his school’s impending move to the Southern Conference.
“I’m excited for a new challenge, but the Big South has been good to us,” he said. “It’s been a good home for us basketball-wise, but I don’t think the choices were necessarily made for basketball.”
So why not one last trip to Rock Hill for old time’s sake?
“Literally, one last trip,” Baucom said, laughing. “It’ll be the last one that I ever make there.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T