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For J.D. Barnett the solution to a problem, any problem, is willpower. You have the self-discipline to prepare and prepare and prepare, and if that's not enough, you beat the damned thing over the head until it's straightened out. That's why he yells and screams and browbeats his players, and that's why his Virginia Commonwealth Rams were 23-4 and headed for the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year following a 62-61 overtime win against Alabama-Birmingham in the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference tournament last Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla.
"Intense? I've heard people say that about me but...ah. Yeah, I'm intense. That's the way I am and I can't do anything about it now," he added. "My life, my way of making a living is all wrapped up in 25 or so 40-minute ball games. Imagine if your living depended on 40 minutes, 25 times a year. Wouldn't you be intense?"
There's at least one more 40 minute session on the horizon for Barnett—in the NCAA tournament, where he hopes to do better than last year's first-round 86-72 loss to Iowa. How the Rams fare will reflect upon the Sun Belt, which, contrary to outlanders' opinions, isn't a league of senior citizens but, as they say in the Southeast, "a conference on the come."
In the five years since its inception, the seven-team Sun Belt has come a long way. Last year it was one of only five conferences to have at least two teams in both the NCAA and NIT tournaments and two players taken in the first round of the pro draft. The Sun Belt is already on a par with the likes of the Metro Conference and the Big East. According to the NCAA's computers, the league is the ninth toughest in the country. The top three teams—Alabama- Birmingham, Virginia Commonwealth and South Alabama—already can compete with anyone, witness South Alabama's 76-67 defeat of Ohio State at Columbus early this season.
Though Sun Belt charter member Georgia State withdrew from the conference after a first-round loss in this year's tournament—things had gotten too big-time for the Panthers—there's already talk of expansion to eight teams, with names like Miami, Old Dominion and South Carolina being tossed about. Any of them would add prestige.
As would landing a major high school prospect, one that was being recruited by, say, an ACC or Big Ten school. That may happen soon. Ennis Whatley of Phillips High in Birmingham, deemed by many the finest schoolboy point guard in the nation, has verbally committed himself to Alabama-Birmingham. If Whatley stays home, the conference may truly be on its way. "I know we're getting there," says Vic Bubas, the former Duke coach and now the Sun Belt commissioner. How does Bubas know? "Because when my coaching friends and I sit around in bars or someplace talking basketball, pretty soon one of them will blurt out, 'I'm damned if we're going to play anyone from your league.' "
More sobering for the competition is the shot of credibility that coaches like Gene Bartow of Alabama-Birmingham, Tates Locke of Jacksonville and Lee Rose of South Florida have given the conference. These guys can win, as can the conference's young lions, like Cliff Ellis, 35, of South Alabama and, of course, the 37-year-old Barnett.
When Barnett left the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech in 1979—"I couldn't stand it," he says. "The women would draw 5,000 and we'd get 500. They had a bigger staff and more money to spend than we did"—and moved to Virginia Commonwealth, one of the first things he did was install a movie projector and screen in his bedroom.
"In the middle of the night that thing is going back and forth, back and forth," says his wife, Susan. "We have two children, one four months. When I get up to feed her, I come back to the bedroom and it's going again."