VMI has been in the college basketball doldrums since returning to the Southern Conference prior to the 2014-15 season under then-head-coach Duggar Baucom.
As it turned out, the 2014-15 season would be the final for Baucom at the helm of the VMI basketball program, as he bolted to become the head coach at The Citadel after nine years with the Keydets.
Enter Dan Earl: a former standout guard at Penn State and a disciple of former Penn State and current Navy head coach Ed DeChellis.
In Earl’s first two seasons at VMI, winning was a struggle, as was introducing his defensive philosophy. Players like SoCon leading scorer QJ Peterson and three-point specialist Julian Eleby were the kind of players who flourished in an open, free-flowing game, and that essentially handcuffed Earl.
However, with the graduation of its top three scorers from a year ago, the 2017-18 version of the Keydets basketball team has looked more like the version that Earl had hoped for from the outset.
VMI is out to a 3-3 start this season, and has some nice wins over a pair of Big South foes in Charleston Southern (76-68) and Presbyterian (78-58). The three wins last season are already halfway to matching last year’s win total.
The win over PC looks especially impressive when you consider the Blue Hose were able to upset one of the SoCon favorites, UNC Greensboro, in a matchup earlier this week.
Earl’s first two seasons in Lexington saw the Keydets produce just a 15-45 record and a 7-29 mark in Southern Conference play. VMI looks to be starting to turn the corner under Earl this season, however.
VMI fans, who were used to watching Baucom’s and Bart Bellairs’ teams of the past, might have been taken aback by the Keydets’ half-court game when compared to a past highlighted by an up-tempo, full-court press style of basketball.
Through the first six games this season, VMI is averaging 71.2 points, which ranks ninth of 10 teams in the league. In Baucom’s final season as the head coach at VMI, the Keydets averaged 80.5, but gave up 80.9 and a league worst 47.3 percent shooting.
In year three of the Earl era, the Keydets rank sixth in scoring defense (73.3 ppg) and fifth in field goal percentage defense (45.5 percent).
There’s no QJ Peterson or Julian Eleby leading the way for the Keydets. It’s been more a team effort this year. Players like sophomore guard Keith Smith (9.2 ppg, 4.3 apg), sophomore forward Tyler Creammer (11.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and rookie Bubba Parham (13.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg) have stepped in to provide efficient offensive production through the first six games.
Sophomore guards and classmates Garrett Gilkerson (4.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Will Miller (5.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg) have also done a good job of playing within themselves early on.
The Keydets have enough young talent to make things interesting in the Southern Conference this season, but they have to take better care of the basketball than they have so far. Through six games, they are averaging 17.3 turnovers per game. That number is actually up from the 13.2 turnovers VMI averaged in 2016-17.
But for the most part, the Keydets look like a much improved basketball team and a team that can finish higher than its preseason projection of last in the SoCon.
One huge difference this season has been the lack of three-point attempts. Through the first six games this season, VMI has launched just 126 shots from long-range. From long-range last season, the Keydets shot 134 to this point.
It’s not a huge difference, but enough to show the Keydets aren’t taking some of the ill-advised attempts from three that they have in recent seasons. Still, VMI ranks ninth of 10 teams in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage, connecting on just 31 percent of its shots from downtown.
One of the areas that has seen the biggest improvement for Earl’s squad is how it has defended the three. After closing out 2016-17 ranking last in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage defense (39.6 percent), the Keydets currently rank second in that category (30.6 percent).
VMI has a proud basketball tradition, which has seen the Keydets make an appearance in three NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1977, as well as an Elite Eight appearance in 1976, matching Davidson’s run in the SoCon in 2008. Players like Gay Elmore, Ron Carter, Reggie Williams and Lewis Preston decorate what has been a proud tradition on the hardwood for the military school. Earl appears to be well on his way toward righting the ship at VMI.