Take a look at some team stats in college basketball, and it might be a bit surprising to see the Virginia Military Institute Keydets leading the nation in a certain category.
The Keydets came into Tuesday night averaging 87.9 points per game. After defeating UNC Asheville, 109-105, they upped that average to 88.9 points per game. That is almost a full point-and-a-half above second-place BYU, which is scoring 87.5 points per game. To put that into NBA terms, if the Keydets played 48 minutes they would average 106.7 points per game. That would place them second in the NBA, just a smidgen ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It isn't that surprising that the Keydets are the best offensive team in the nation no one has heard of. VMI is a state-supported military college in Lexington, Va. Approximately 1,500 undergraduates attend the school. During its 106-year existence, the men's basketball team is 839-1423 and is 3-3 in the NCAA Tournament.
In a world featuring the Duke Blue Devils, North Carolina Tar Heels, Michigan State Spartans and other major powerhouses, the Keydets weren't even worth the energy to be an afterthought. That is why when Duggar Baucom became coach in 2005, he decided to change up the process a bit.
Since taking over, his Keydets led the nation in scoring five straight years, from 2006 until 2011, to set a new Division I record. In 2006-07, they became the most recent Division I squad to average 100 points per game. The idea of Baucom's offense is simple: shoot as many shots as possible (three pointers are highly encouraged) and then use full-court pressure to force as many turnovers as possible. The results are some NBA-caliber final scores.
Guard Travis Holmes described the offense in as simple of terms as possible to ESPN in 2009, "Shoot the ball before you turn it over."
Using this philosophy, VMI is the most crazed scoring team in the country no one gets to see on TV. The Keydets are first in the nation in field goals attempted and first in three pointers attempted. Of the 1,440 field goals they've attempted, 39.3 percent of those have been from beyond the arc. Coming into Tuesday, VMI had attempted 557 threes in 19 games. The second highest total comes from Eastern Kentucky, which has chucked up 527 through 21 games.
After a few years of declining scores, VMI is back up on top of the nation. Much of the resurgence comes from the team's leading scorer, rookie guard Q.J. Peterson, who averages 21 points per game and seemed destined to fit into VMI's system. Senior D.J. Covington told The News & Advance that Peterson is a gym rat.
"His tenacity on defense, he can handle the ball and relieve a little pressure on [point guard] Rodney [Glasgow] and he can score. He's a flat-out scorer. Especially with me and Rodney getting double-teamed, it gives him opportunities to take over the game and start scoring."
Peterson is flanked by senior guard Rodney Glasgow, who averages 18.8 points, and Covington, who averages 16.2. That is three of the Big South's top seven scorers on the same team.
It is hardly an invincible offensive strategy. The Keydets are always near the top of the offensive statistics in the NCAA and are just as consistently at the bottom for the defensive metrics. For opposing teams, there are plenty of ways to compete. The most popular is to buy into the game VMI plays and let the kids run wild. Virginia Tech was successful in this, defeating VMI 105-92 earlier this season. The Hokies average 68.8 points per game. Wake Forest did the same thing in a 98-71 win. The Demon Deacons average 72.2 points per game.
Whether or not VMI's style is successful is up to interpretation. Since Baucom took over, the Keydets are 129-136. That is a much better record than students were witnessing since the Keydets' last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1977.
With the NCAA bottoming out with an average of 68 scored per team last season and the recent Harris Poll revealing college basketball to be one of the least popular sports in America, if anything, VMI is making a potentially boring game much more entertaining. Baucom believes in letting his kids play, and told Michael Weinreb of Grantland that he'd rather watch Justified than teams that grind out 59-56 wins.
[Coaches] try to orchestrate every movement instead of letting [players] play. It becomes kind of like a wrestling match. There's teams in our league that run 20 seconds of false motion to get the shot clock down, and then run a set. I watch some teams play and it looks like the kids are in jail.
At 4-3 in the Big South, Virginia Military probably won't be making the NCAA tournament without a big run through its conference tournament. Either way, as long as Baucom is in charge, the Keydets will remain an infinitely more entertaining team than they were in the 1990s. When they finally make their triumphant return to the big dance, the Keydets will be the most fun team to watch.