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2015-16 Preview: VMI Keydets Embark on New Era

VMI looks to climb up the Southern Conference ladder behind new head coach Dan Earl.

Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

At one time, the VMI football program was known by the unique wishbone offense it employed under the direction of head coaches such as Jim Shuck and Cal McCombs, but as the spread era emerged, the Keydets adapted to the times, going away from the run-oriented wishbone offense.

While not the same sport, VMI will now be making a similar transition on the college basketball hardwood, as it moves from the high-octane, up-tempo offense, a more conventional offense. That's because there was a change at the top, with Duggar Baucom leaving to move south to military arch-rival The Citadel, where he will look take that program out of the SoCon cellar just as he did with the Keydets. Under Baucom and predecessor Bart Bellairs, the Keydets would become known as the "Runnin' Roos."

With Baucom's departure, the Keydets found a successful assistant with ties to a military program, hiring former Navy assistant and Penn State guard Dan Earl. The Keydets became the 28th head basketball coach at VMI, and it will be a stark difference in style of play with his introduction as the head coach, with one of the major changes being VMI's dedication on the defensive end of the floor, after opponents connected on nearly 48% of their shots from the floor last season.

Though Earl came in an era of Penn State basketball when it had some of the Nittany Lions' greatest perimeter shooters, in Earl himself as well as guys like Pete Lisicky, don't expect the Keydets to be putting up the ball from long range over 1,000 times again this season.

Earl played and coached under assistant and later head coach Ed DeChellis, who revived East Tennessee State's program in the late 1990s, before returning to State College, PA, as the head coach following the 2002-03 campaign, which happened to be the first of what would become two-straight SoCon titles for the Bucs before exiting the SoCon for the Atlantic Sun in 2005. As a player, Earl was part of a 21-7 season in 1996, which included an NCAA Tournament appearance and an eventual Top 10 finish for the season.

There is plenty of returning scoring power and experience returning for the 2015-16 season, with guards Julien Eleby (11.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG), Tim Marshall (11.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG) and Q.J. Peterson (19.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG) back, however, it's unclear how the drastic change in philosophy, as Baucom's style of basketball resembled the Phoenix Suns guard-oriented, fun-n-gun offense under Cotton Fitzsimmons and Paul Westphal.

Earl will favor a style of play, which will be more physical and resemble more of a Big Ten style of basketball rather than the Baucom's best impressions of Loyola Marymount of the early 1990s. While the style will be different, Earl may not try and change things too much in year one on the offensive side of the things, but running might be a more calculated endeavour than it was during his predecessor's reign.

One thing that will Earl is likely not to fool with is changing the game of two of the league's most dynamic scorers, in Peterson and Eleby. Peterson was forced to take a medical leave last season, and missed the better part of conference play, however, he is back this season and ready to lead Keydets dynamic scoring and was actually the leading scorer in the league at 19.6 PPG at the time of his departure.

However, Peterson must do a better job of taking care of the basketball, which was of course due mostly to the helter-skelter pace the Keydets employed last season. In a game against West Virginia last season, the Keydets turned the basketball over 13 times, and the Keydets forfeited the basketball 36 times in an early season loss to the Mountaineers.

Peterson would post one of the top individual performances of the Southern Conference season, with a career-high 32 points in an early Southern Conference loss to Mercer.

Peterson is just one of the pieces returning for the Keydets this season, as plenty of talent highlights the roster for Earl in his first season as head coach, and Baucom definitely left the program in better shape when Earl arrived than it was when Baucom himself took over.

Joining Peterson as a part of Earl's talented backcourt this coming season will be Tim Marshall (11.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG) and Julian Eleby (11.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG), who will both enter the season as all-league hopefuls.

Marshall, a 6-3 senior guard from Newport News, VA, proved to be an excellent scoring threat from the perimeter last season, and was especially good down the stretch of the season, as he posted some of his best performances in the late-going last season.

Marshall canned a career-best 86 triples last season, and would become the go-to-scorer when Peterson went on medical hardship. His 86 triples led the team, but he shot just 32.0% (86-of-269) from long range last season. In a 93-59 win over Furman, Marshall posted a career-high 25 points on 7-for-15 shooting from three-point range. The early February win over Furman was Duggar Baucom basketball at its finest, as the Keydets tied a program record with 24 triples, as well as the Division I season mark, which was equaled by Iona earlier in the season.

Eleby, a junior, also proved to be a player to watch down the stretch for the Keydets last season, and it was Eleby that would produce the finest individual scoring performance by a Southern Conference player last season, as he was able to pour in 43 points in a thrilling 113-111 double-overtime win at Western Carolina last season. That performance was the top scoring performance in the history of VMI basketball against a Division I opponent.

Eleby, a 6-3 swingman will be looked to for buckets more inside the paint this season, having already developed a nice mid-range and perimeter game. Eleby knocked down 35 triples last season, but shot shot just 30.4% (35-of-115) from long range last season. At times Eleby even played the four when VMI played a four-guard lineup.

Depth in the backcourt won't be exactly experienced, as three newcomers highlight the depth. Austin Vereen (6-4/Washington, D.C.), Niles Tate (6-0, Chesterfield, VA) and Adrian Rich (6-2, Fuquay-Varina, N.C.) will all get a chance to showcase their talents this coming season.

There is a solid returning cast in the frontcourt, although its one that might be a bit undersized. The best of the bunch is Phillip Anglade (8.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 87 blocks), who returns at one of the forward positions. Anglade was one of the premier shot-blockers in the SoCon last season, ranking second to only Chattanooga's Tuoyo.

Anglade is just one among several returnees in the front court for the Keydets, which will also include Trey Chapman (6.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG), Jordan Weethee (5.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG) and newcomer D'Andre Mahaffey. The Keydets did lose one player from the frontcourt from last season, as 6-7 forward Craig Hinton is set to continue his career at Appalachian State.

How long will it take Dan Earl to get the Keydets playing a conventional style of basketball? The answer to that question, or more importantly, when the Keydets start limiting foes defensively might yield an answer. Earl has the talent on the offensive end to get productivity, but I suspect Earl's first season in Lexington will have its struggles.