TO APPRECIATE the small miracle of Virginia Military Institute basketball, you must go to the Hill at dawn. You must wait under a purple winter sky, with a hard frost beneath your feet and dense fog lying low across the surrounding Shenandoah Valley. Then you must train your eyes on the olive-drab stone walls of the four-story gothic barracks rising from the west end of the parade grounds, for this is where every long day begins.
At three minutes before seven last Thursday morning the nearly 1,400 corpsmen and women of VMI emerged from portals in the barracks walls and formed into precise rows that stretched more than 100 yards across the front of the building. A lone bugler sounded reveille and the flags of the U.S. and Virginia were hoisted skyward. A steady drumbeat began, and the cadets, dressed in identical gray uniform slacks with black jackets, marched to the end of the barracks, turned sharply left and downhill toward the mess hall, into the rising sun.
Indistinguishable among the corps were the 15 members of the VMI men's basketball team, which 12 hours later would thrash NAIA neighbor Southern Virginia 113--92, pushing its record to 17--3 entering Monday night's game against Big South rival UNC-Asheville. As January drew to a close, the Keydets of VMI led the conference with an 8--1 record. They had begun their season with an epic 111--103 November upset of Kentucky at Rupp Arena and scarcely slowed since, leading the nation in scoring (with 96.0 points per game), three-pointers (14.1) and steals (14.5) thanks to a withering combination: full-court pressure defense to force turnovers and quick-trigger shooting from beyond the arc. Senior wings Chavis and Travis Holmes, identical twins, were averaging a combined 40.8 points a game.
The Keydets have already ensured the school's first winning record in 11 years, but there remains a higher goal: March Madness beckons. "If they get to the tournament, they are absolutely a threat to beat somebody," says Virginia coach Dave Leitao, whose Cavaliers had to score 107 points to hold off VMI by 10 in November, 48 hours after the Keydets had beaten Kentucky. "They are unique and nontraditional. It's going to be very difficult to prepare for them."
Yet there is so much more to VMI's unlikely rise than chasing a moment's glory on CBS.
There is a coach, Duggar Baucom, 48, who did not get his first college coaching job until he was 35 and—his words—"an ex-state trooper with a pacemaker in my chest." He has revived VMI not only with his high-speed attack but also with shrewd recruiting and far-outside-the-box touches, like team sessions with a hypnotherapist he found while watching Golf Channel.
There is a college, steeped in military tradition, where freshmen are called Rats and endure a punishing six-month initiation called the Ratline. Where even seniors live three- and four-to-a-room in spartan quarters (no televisions, no refrigerators) and follow a zero-tolerance honor code. "Attention to detail, adherence to standards," says J.H. Binford Peay III, a retired four-star U.S. Army general who became VMI's 14th superintendent in 2003. "It's a strenuous life, and mentally difficult. It takes a special kid to come here."
There is a basketball system that is among the most frenetic that any team has played in the sport's history. In 2006--07 Baucom's second season at VMI, the Keydets set still-standing NCAA records for three-point shots attempted (1,383) and made (442), as well as for steals (450). It has been called the Sprint and Strike (by Baucom) and the Loot and Shoot (by the Virginia media), and Baucom pieced it together from Paul Westhead's crazy-fast Loyola Marymount teams in the late 1980s, Division III Grinnell (Iowa) College's platoon-shift frenzy, and Vance Walberg's dribble-drive motion and full-court pressure package (SI, Feb. 18, 2008). "With five shooters on the floor," says coach Rick Scruggs of Big South rival Gardner-Webb, "no speed is too fast [for them]."
There is a liberating feeling that comes with that offense, a departure for the Keydets from the rigid discipline that governs the rest of their lives. "We come down here from the Hill to practice, and it's a release, especially the way we play," says 6'7" senior co-captain Willie Bell. "Out here on the court we can just be free."
And there is, perhaps most of all, a punishing college culture, begging for an outlet. "I'm on the Hill every day talking with kids," says Sherry Baucom, the coach's wife and the VMI athletic department's senior woman administrator and academic adviser. "Life is harsh here. There's not a whole lot that goes on. Winning gives the cadets something to look forward to." On Jan. 17, 28-year-old, 5,800-seat Cameron Hall was sold out for the first time in its history, as VMI lost to Liberty 91--80. Four days later more than 100 Cadets traveled to Radford to watch the Keydets bounce back with a 87--72 win.