An alumnus of VMI who had not been heard from in years telephoned the athletic office in Lexington, Va. the other day and, given the perennial shortcomings of the school's basketball team, made what sounded like a ridiculously presumptuous request.
"Do you think I'll be able to get tickets to our first-round game in the NCAA tournament?" he asked.
Hey, buddy, this is Virginia Military Institute you're talking about. Surely you haven't forgotten the Old Barracks that look as homey as Leavenworth, that 6:45 a.m. wakeup call, standing your bed against the wall from reveille until after supper, the freshman Rat Line, hazing, demerits, marching and all those other endearing customs that may explain why the basketball team was 1-25 as recently as 1971? So what if the guys in the '50s haircuts got a few lucky breaks last season and came astonishingly close to reaching the Final Four. What do you expect for an encore—a 25-1 reversal and another trip to the NCAAs?
Well, why not? That is exactly what is likely to happen in Lexington. Counting last week's victories over Furman (99-86) and Hampden-Sydney (94-78), the Keydets (Southern drawl for "cadets") are 18-1 and have won 17 straight since Virginia beat them 55-50 in the second game of the season. Barring unforeseen disasters, they should win the rest of their games to finish the regular season 25-1, then sweep through the Southern Conference tournament in nearby Roanoke. In that event, Coach Charlie Schmaus' team would meet the winner of the Eastern Collegiate Basketball League, which might mean a rematch with Rutgers. And that would be interesting because the Scarlet Knights had a bit of trouble with two VMI players before stopping the Keydets 91-75 in the finals of the 1976 Eastern Regional in Greensboro, N.C.
February 14, 1977
Those two players, Forwards Ron Carter and Will Bynum, are both 6'5" and extremely skinny and will wind up one-two in career scoring before they leave VMI. There all similarities between the teammates end.
Bynum, a senior, is a long-necked goose from Sumter, S.C., with sloping shoulders and soft blond hair that is cut so short his ears seem to stick out. "Yeah, somebody wrote that I looked like I stepped right off Huck Finn's raft," says Bynum with a mixture of humor and disgust. "Well, sir, I've got news for you. I came to VMI because I was a basketball player, not because I had an uncontrollable urge to carry a rifle around all day." A civil engineering major with a 3.9 grade average last semester, Bynum totaled 42 points in the 1976 NCAA tournament upsets of Tennessee and DePaul, then had 34 in the loss to Rutgers.
The Keydets might have stopped the Scarlet Knights' 30-game winning streak that night if Carter, who shot 22 for 37 in the tournament, hadn't acquired four fouls in the first half. VMI was still in the thick of the contest at the time and Bynum wasn't even warmed up. From the playgrounds of Pittsburgh, Carter remembers: "The guys back home said I was wasting my time going to a place like VMI—not that they had ever heard of it. But I was a sad case coming out of high school. I couldn't do anything. Take that back, I was an expert at double dribbling and at stepping without dribbling."
While Bynum operates mainly outside, Carter works the creases, driving to the hoop through dangerously narrow gaps and improvising en route. At one point against Hampden-Sydney he started his takeoff near the foul line with the idea of soaring in for a slam dunk. Suddenly confronted by a defender intent upon drawing an offensive foul, Carter altered his thrust at the last instant, brought the ball well below his waist to avoid a flailing arm and swished what looked like a 15-foot layup. He was also fouled and made the free throw.
Carter is averaging 21.3 points per game and shooting .547. Bynum's numbers are 17.7 and .575, and the other three VMI starters are also legitimate talents. At 6'7" and 214 pounds, Center Dave Montgomery is no makeshift pivotman. He led the Southern Conference in shooting percentage last year (.649), and his .632 mark is currently among the 10 best in the nation. He came to VMI because his Baltimore high school was on strike most of his senior year and recruiters forgot about him. "Dave is about the biggest player I can remember here," says Schmaus, "but there are no height restrictions at VMI. We'd put two beds together if we had to."
Guard John Krovic is known as Legend around the post because of his long-range bombs. Point Guard Kelly Lombard is one of the few inconsistent marksmen on a team that shoots .538. But Lombard makes up for this with the kind of red-faced hustle that produced 10 assists and no turnovers against Furman. He runs the Keydets' fast break, and with help from the pep band, which plays the William Tell overture at top volume during games, it is devastating.
Obviously, all this talk about winning back-to-back conference crowns and a scarcity of NCAA tickets represents quite an achievement for a school of 1,200 cadets that had to beat The Citadel in overtime to gain that single victory in 1971. Those Keydets played so poorly that the coaching staff put together the Funny Film, so called because it contained classic game footage of VMI missing open layups, kicking the ball out of bounds and bumping heads on defense. The producer of this epic and, ironically, the man who eventually masterminded last year's 22-10 comeback—the Keydets' first winning season since 1941—was Bill Blair who claims to have been "the worst cadet in VMI history." When Blair left VMI after last year's heroics to become head coach at Colorado, his assistant, Schmaus, stepped in.
"I recruited all these guys you see here," says Schmaus, whose VMI career scoring record was broken by Bynum and Krovic on the same night earlier in the season. Schmaus' rebound mark will soon belong to Montgomery, a junior, and the coach will eventually rank fourth in scoring when Carter, another junior, takes over the lead. "But VMI isn't the easiest place to sell," Schmaus says. "I remember thinking that if I had known all the harsh realities of life when I visited, I probably would not have come. Yet my philosophy has not been to recruit military types who are good basketball players. They don't exist. We try to attract good athletes who can accept the military way of life. Maybe we don't tell recruits the whole truth all at once, but we don't lie, either. I found that if you can get through your first year without cracking under the pressure, you can really enjoy yourself here."
Bynum, a private first class who has made no attempts to gain a higher rank, concedes that athletes have an easier time than non-athletes at VMI. "We don't have to march to dinner or supper during the season," he says. "We can sleep in on game day if we don't have a class and, of course, we get to leave the post a lot for games, which is a relief. But the corps accepts this a lot better now that they've started getting something out of it. When we beat DePaul last year to make it to the finals of the regionals, classes were called off on Friday and Saturday, even confinements were canceled."
Carter, on the other hand, is a master sergeant who wants to become an Air Force pilot. He was in charge of making sure that dress uniforms were cleaned and pressed in preparation for the presidential inaugural parade in which a corps of VMI cadets marched. Carter would have taken part himself if he hadn't been busy scoring 20 points and pulling down 10 rebounds in an 88-79 Keydet victory at the University of Richmond that evening.
"I like VMI," he says. "I get a little tired of fans on the road yelling 'Hup, two, three, four' at us like we're a bunch of soldiers. But it's O.K. We're always killing their team at the time."