Conference on the come

Of the upwardly mobile Sun Belt teams, Virginia Commonwealth is rising fastest
March 09, 1981

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.

When it came down to it, the Rams were probably too scared of their coach to lose. "I wasn't going to let them, not when we've come this far," said Barnett.

"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."

With that sort of dedication, Barnett may soon be given the esteem Bartow and Rose already enjoy. The only active coaches to have taken two different teams into the final four—the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, another Sun Belt team, and Purdue for Rose; Memphis State and UCLA for Bartow—they have won a combined 69.3% of their games over the years. This season Rose guided South Florida, a 6-21 doormat in '79-80, to an 18-10 record and a possible NIT bid. Miraculous? Not really. It was only the second season in Rose's 14-year career at four schools that he has failed to win 20 games. "You can either sustain programs or create them," he says. "I think there's something special about the creative process. Tampa has never been a hotbed of basketball, there was no great tradition, no support. But the potential was there."

Bartow's project at 12-year-old UAB has been even more ambitious—building a team from scratch, which he got plenty of four years ago to move to Birmingham from UCLA. "We have an administration that really wants to be known as the University of Alabama and get rid of the hyphen," Bartow says. "They want to be recognized like a USC in football or a UCLA in basketball."

At Alabama-Birmingham, as distinct from UCLA, Bartow isn't coaching the team you love to hate. Locally, that title belongs to his neighbor to the south, South Alabama. A loose group, the South Alabama players love to jive and high-five, usually in their opponents' faces. They're always messing with the opposition's heads, talking from the opening tip and getting louder with each good play they make.

Two seasons ago, in Jacksonville, the Jaguars were pelted with socks, some of which were stuffed with ice or golf balls, as they were introduced before the game and again after the action had started. Things got to the point where Locke had to get on the P.A. system to restore order.

"We get that stuff because we win. When I was a freshman we were the doormats, but then we went undefeated in the conference the next year and that rap began," says South Alabama's Ed Rains, a smooth forward and this season's Sun Belt Player of the Year. "It's just propaganda, just like our talking to other players. There's nothing illegal or vulgar about it. If you can mentally disturb a guy, it's to your advantage, and if he can't handle it, he shouldn't be out there."

Despite having the best talent and biggest mouths in the conference, South Alabama has never won the postseason tournament. Last week the Jaguars, who finished the regular season at 22-4 and were rated as high as 14th in the SI Top 20, were knocked off 86-59 in the semifinals by Alabama-Birmingham. That put UAB in Sunday's final against Virginia Commonwealth, which had beaten South Florida 53-45 in the other semi. The matchup was a repeat of last year's final, won 105-88, by Virginia Commonwealth, and provided a stark contrast between the gentlemanly, bespectacled Bartow and Barnett, a first-class ranter and raver.

Although the two men grew up in the same county in Missouri, they aren't the best of friends. After blowing an early lead and losing 67-65 to the Blazers in Birmingham on Jan. 10, Barnett put his fist through a locker room blackboard. Bartow sent him a $265 bill for the damages.

Barnett's tone for the tournament was set two minutes into the Rams' first practice session after they arrived in Jacksonville, when he stopped the action to remind his squad why they had made the trip to Jacksonville. "If you're here to screw around, your ass is grass," roared Barnett. "We're not here to play, we're here to WIN!"

And when all the shouting was over they had, although with the game on the line Barnett was surprisingly the quietest person in the arena. The clincher came on a free throw by the Rams' outstanding point guard, Edmund Sherod, following a questionable two-shot foul call with four seconds to play, and as Sherod went to the line, Barnett seemed to bow his head in prayer. It drooped lower when Sherod missed his first shot. But after the game-winner had rattled home, Barnett was talking loud and tough again. "I want to make it clear. We are the best team in this conference," he said. "We're 23-4 with 15 wins in a row. Someone is going to damn sure realize that VCU exists."

PHOTOBarnett's players were too scared of him to lose. PHOTOBirmingham's Bartow lost in the finals once more.

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