UK Men's Basketball

VMI lets it fly with Pitino style

By chance, Virginia Military Institute Coach Duggar Baucom found himself sitting next to Rick Pitino at a recruiting camp.

The two barely acknowledged each other (Baucom was not wearing VMI clothing) until Pitino's son, Richard, joined them. Richard, then an assistant at Duquesne, knew that his short-handed team had studied VMI's style of play. In basketball's version of evolution, Baucom revived VMI with the full-court pressing, three-point shooting style Richard's father had made famous at Providence and then Kentucky.

Intrigued, Pitino the elder asked Baucom how he decided to use the playing style first made famous in the Bluegrass by Pitino's Bombinos.

"A lot by watching your teams play," Baucom said of the conversation starter. "We talked for an hour. He couldn't have been nicer."

Rupp Arena might get a back-to-the-future moment when Kentucky plays VMI on Friday. Baucom's Keydets have led the nation in scoring the past two seasons and have no intention of slowing down.

"We're going to play the way we play," Baucom said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "The key is making shots. If we can make some shots, we can keep it closer than if we don't.

"But we have our hands full there regardless of what we can do."

Baucom hasn't forgotten that Kentucky-VMI is a so-called "guarantee" game, with VMI guaranteed a handsome paycheck and Kentucky a victory. Even though the three-point basket gives less-talented teams a greater chance to compete, and the fast-paced style is designed to take opponents out of their practiced patterns, there are limits.

"A lot of coaches, I call them joystick coaches," Baucom said. "They like to work that joystick. They like to control everything."

But Kentucky carries a much bigger stick.

"Kentucky's not a good example," the VMI coach said. "They're so big and strong, they're going to impose their will."

Necessity led Baucom to adopt a system that enabled VMI to lead the nation in scoring the last two seasons: 100.9 ppg in 2006-07 and 91.3 ppg in 2007-08. In that same time frame, the Keydets led the nation in three-point baskets: a record 13.39 in 2006-07 and 11.59 last season.

As the 2006-07 season was about to begin, VMI lost its center, Justin Jarman, and point guard, Sean Christiansen, to violations of the school's honor code.

"So we kind of scratched the traditional deal," Baucom said. "And I said, 'Hey, if we're going to be different, let's be way different.'"

Viva la difference. VMI won 14 games in 2006-07 and another 14 last season.

While acknowledging how modest back-to-back 14-victory seasons might seem to Kentucky, Baucom said, "That's only been done once before (at VMI). That's how futile our basketball success had been here."

VMI enters this season without the player that led the team and the nation in scoring the last two seasons. Reggie Williams averaged 28.1 and 27.8 points in those seasons.

"As unselfish as we were, he still dominated the ball a lot," Baucom said of looking ahead to the post-Williams era. "Now there are more shots to go around. I think we'll play a little bit harder."

VMI sets a goal of 100 shots, including 50 three-point attempts, each game. "That would be in a perfect world," Baucom said. The idea is to speed up a game and get a shot at the basket before committing a turnover.

During a news conference on Wednesday, Kentucky Coach Billy Gillispie spoke of the danger of trying to match VMI three-pointer for three-pointer. He also noted how a bombs-away attitude can inject confidence.

"They're not worried about missing," he said. "Those are dangerous teams."

To build that mentality, Baucom suggested the need for an old military trick: Break down his troops before building them up in a new image. In this case, VMI must re-learn basketball.

"In the first six or seven days of practice, we work all on offense," the VMI coach said. "I want to break some bad high school habits and teach the guys how we want to play."

Those "bad high school habits" are also known as "good fundamentals," Baucom said with a chuckle.

"We'll leave our feet to pass. We'll make passes going out of bounds. ... In high school, you set screens and run plays. We don't set screens. We're more concerned with spacing. We run sets, but that's not our deal."