Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Optimism found on Keydets' platter

LEXINGTON -- When you really think about it, the burritos had the best chance.

Other factors have tried -- and failed -- to derail the VMI basketball team this year. The loss of the state's all-time Division I scoring leader to graduation. A daunting season opener against Kentucky at historic Rupp Arena. A knee injury to the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer.

But the burritos last Sunday night? Those probably hit the hardest.

"I think it had some bad guacamole in it or something," senior guard Chavis Holmes said. "I was throwing up all the next day."

Fellow starter Austin Kenon also got sick off the take-out Mexican food. So did reserve forward Quinn Brownfield.

With Travis Holmes -- twin brother of Chavis and one of three senior leaders -- already sidelined with the knee problem, the Keydets were severely shorthanded heading into Monday's game at Charleston Southern.

They'd need something special to happen.


n n n

Today, as you probably know, Virginia travels to Virginia Tech for an ACC basketball game. The stakes are high for both teams. Cassell Coliseum should be packed and rowdy.

But the best story so far this season is taking place here, at 5,800-seat Cameron Hall, where VMI will host Coastal Carolina at 1 p.m. today. The Keydets are off to their best start in three decades. At 12-2 and 4-0 in the Big South, they've already matched the school record with six road victories, including the stunning upset at Kentucky to open the season.

The Hill is alive with optimism, hoping this could be the year VMI returns to the NCAA tournament. And so is the locker room.

"I think the guys really like each other and believe in each other," coach Duggar Baucom said. "And they believe at the end of games that they're supposed to win. It's taken us four years to get to that point, but we're there."

They're there despite conventional wisdom that the loss of Reggie Williams -- who twice led the NCAA in scoring and is now playing professionally in Europe -- would cripple them.

Instead, what's emerged is a more democratic team, a group of individuals who all feel like they can contribute at any time.

"It's a lot different," Chavis Holmes said. "I think last year a lot of people stood around and kind of watched Reggie score. But this year, we've got the freshmen coming into the system believing, and they're contributing a lot. It's a team effort."

That bond began in the summer, when the team stayed together for summer school. Unlike the regular school year, when many of the basketball players don't live together, the entire team stayed in one house and worked out as a group. They ran. They shot. They learned to get along.

By August, when individual workouts began, the team had a noticeable chemistry.

"It's the best team we've ever had coming into that, as far as being prepared," Baucom said.

And they would soon prove it.

n n n

When the ball snapped through the net, Austin Kenon had an epiphany.

It was merely three points in the first quarter, there remained an eternity to play, but Kenon realized something when he knocked down his first 3-point jumper in the season opener in front of 22,000 fans at Kentucky.

"I realized they were just like us," he said. "They practice hard just like we do. They go through everything like we do. Sure, they've got some bigger players, but they've got to put the ball through the hoop just like we do."

Back home in Lexington, Hunter Houston was following the game on the Internet. The sophomore forward was allowed to practice with the team but could not travel or play during the first semester as he got his academics in order. It was the same fate that befell Kenon last year, when he got behind on his studies and had to miss the second half of the season.

"I was really upset last year," Kenon said. "I was probably the hardest on myself, because I realized I had let the team down and I let myself down. It was tough for me to watch from the sidelines. You're helpless. You want to go out there and give what you can, but here I was, stuck on the bench just watching and doing the best I could to support the team, being the biggest cheerleader."

Houston was doing the same thing on Nov. 14, albeit in a TV-less room in the barracks. He shouted with joy as the Keydets took a big lead, then worried as they briefly lost it. Then he celebrated as they notched one of the biggest victories in program history, 111-103.

"I was going nuts in my room. It was fun," Houston said. "Coming into the Kentucky game and playing that way, we couldn't have done it any better."

Gone was the doubt. From that point forward, VMI would be intimidated by no team. When the Keydets logged a stinker at Jacksonville State on Nov. 29, the coaches didn't panic or chide. They urged the players to remember the team that beat Kentucky, not the one that lost to Jacksonville State.

The Keydets promptly turned around and beat Winthrop -- the preseason Big South favorite -- by 18 points, breaking a nine-game losing streak against the Eagles.

But oh, those burritos.

n n n

Baucom gave Chavis Holmes an out.

"You can stay in bed," the coach told the player.

"No, coach," Holmes said. "I want to be with the team."

So he and the other two sick players went to shootaround on Monday. They sat on the bench with their heads in their hands as the other Keydets practiced.

Later, when the team went to the arena for pregame, all three stricken players stayed on the bus. None took a shot in warm-ups.

But Kenon, who had begun to feel better thanks to some ginger ale and rest, decided he would try to play. Houston -- who'd been eligible to play the two previous games but hadn't -- was told he'd have to be a major factor.

He was. He scored a career-high 18 points. Senior Willie Bell scored a career-best 17. And Kenon, battling the churning stomach, poured in 26 as the Keydets won 93-90.

Something special had happened. Again.

Take that, burritos.

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