Virginia Commonwealth has never before been cited in a preseason poll or even favored to win its own Sun Belt Conference. But this year's Commonwealth club has little in common with the past. This is a Top 20 team all right; it's just not your run-of-the-mill Top 20 team. It has no natural rebounder; the leading shot-blocker is a 6'2" point guard; the coach throws up before every game; and the star player, Guard Calvin Duncan (below), carries a thesaurus in his back pocket to improve his vocabulary, lest the Rams do attract national attention and he has to face the press. No wonder the Virginia Commonwealth players, who compensate for their lack of size with speed, careful shooting and discipline, call themselves the Blue-Collar Workers.
"Other teams have more height and more rebounding," says Duncan, the Rams' foreman in 1982-83 with 17.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. "We have to fight and scratch for everything we get. There's no easy victory for us, so we have to unionize."
Volatile Coach J.D. Barnett takes care of the unity department. He's more than willing to sacrifice his own popularity to provide his players with a common bond: a hatred of him. Barnett screams at the Rams with such intensity at practices that he consumes a pack of Hall's Mentho-Lyptus drops each day to protect his throat. "If they're rallying together, even if it's against me, it's O.K. as long as they're becoming a team," says Barnett. "Adversity shouldn't be a stranger. They should learn how to deal with it. Better with me than in a game."
Barnett becomes so nervous on game days, it sometimes looks as if he has taken a hunting knife to his face instead of a razor. But over the last four seasons he has built an 83-35 record and a reputation for coaxing success from teams that seem unimpressive on paper. Last season Barnett squeezed a 15-game winning streak, a conference co-championship and a 24-7 record out of a Ram roster that included two 6'3" starting forwards, four underclassmen regulars and a thinny-thin bench. Naturally, Barnett was named Sun Belt Coach of the Year.
Duncan guides the Rams' motion offense with the precision of a metronome. Forget inside posting—they don't have the power players for that. And forget downtown bombs—these Rams press for midrange, sure-fire jumpers. A balanced offense is a priority until the game's on the line, at which point Duncan usually gets the ball. "It's impossible to stop him in a one-on-one situation," says Barnett.
In this uncommon season, many of the traditional white-collar powers will find that going head-to-head with the Blue-Collar Boys a real chore.