Pacemaker: New coach turns The Citadel (really?) into nation’s top-scoring team

Duggar Baucom has installed a frenetic offense -- and defense -- in the most unlikely of places: The Citadel.

Last season, the men’s basketball team at The Citadel averaged 64 points per game, which ranked 264th in the country.

On its surface, this is a completely inconsequential fact about some anonymous 11-19 team from the Southern Conference.

That is, until you consider that this season The Citadel ranks first in the nation in scoring, its 93.1 points per game three points ahead of the second-ranked team and up nearly 30 points from a year ago. It has attempted more 3-pointers than any team in college hoops; more than half its shots are threes. The Bulldogs constantly press on defense, too, which is why their lightning-fast games average more possessions than any other team’s games in college hoops.

This can all be traced to The Citadel’s new head coach, 55-year-old Duggar Baucom, whose former team, Virginia Military Institute, led college basketball in scoring six times in his nine years as head coach.

And why does he employ the most frenetic system in all of Division I basketball?

Well, it comes from the life lessons of a man whose uncle died at age 20 and whose father died at age 42 of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the same disease that killed Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers. It’s also the same disease the coach learned he had on Christmas Day 1990, when at age 30 Baucom – who had just come off his shift as a North Carolina state trooper – had a heart attack in his shower and had to reinvent his entire life.

“Out of all 351 Division I coaches, no one has a crazier story than me,” Baucom said recently.

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Before we get to Baucom’s life journey that led him to one of college basketball’s most unique styles, let’s talk first about this wild way of playing the game, just so you can get a grasp of how innovative, individualistic and irreverent BaucomBall really is.

“In a nutshell we’re going to play the fastest tempo of any team in college basketball,” Baucom explained. “Within that we’re going to allow you the freedom to shoot when you’re open. Our basic philosophy is that we try to shoot it before we turn it over.”

This is not the “system” popularized by Division III Grinnell College, which got a lot of notoriety a few years back when Jack Taylor set the all-time scoring record with 138 points in a game. Grinnell’s system basically involves trading 2-pointers for 3-pointers and has a little bit of gimmickry to it – that team’s coach will aim to set single-game records.

“We’re not like that,” Baucom said. “We don’t give up baskets. We try to turn you over. We’re more risk than reward. We’re not about trading twos for threes. We want to stop you or steal it from you because we want more possessions in a game. It’s almost like shot inflation.”

Grinnell is known for its lack of emphasis on defense. Not so with Duggar Baucom teams. In fact, this year The Citadel’s opponents average less time on each offensive possession than The Citadel does because Baucom’s players are constantly pressing and trapping and speeding up the opponents’ offense. Baucom uses a 12-man rotation, sometimes subbing all five players in and out on “hockey shifts” because the pace can be so exhausting.

On offense, it’s a very European style – and much more structured than you’d expect for such a frenzied system.

“A lot of times you have guys who are playing fast, and it can look like there’s not a great amount of structure to it, but here there really is,” said Mike Legg, the team’s radio announcer. “They like to get the ball up and down the floor. The 30-second shot clock fits into what they’re trying to do. One of the big things is not to let the ball get stuck. Always keep it moving.”

Like the best European teams, The Citadel uses great ball movement and its players frequently leave their feet to pass. All five men on the floor are shooters. Baucom won’t recruit a player who can’t shoot, no matter if he’s a seven-footer or a dynamite athlete. Baucom despises turnovers, which is why, despite such a fast pace, his team is not particularly turnover-prone.

Derrick Henry is The Citadel’s leading scorer at 19.2 points per game.

“You can always rebound a missed shot, but you can’t rebound a turnover,” Baucom said. “If we take the first good shot, we got four guys who are going to the glass to go get it.”

There’s one thing he hates more than anything else, something that puts Baucom in line with the analytical minds of modern-day basketball: midrange jumpers. Hates them. Hates them. If you play for The Citadel, your shot chart looks like a doughnut: Lots of threes, lots of layups, but a big fat hole in the middle.

“We don’t shoot any midrange jumpers,” Baucom said. “We don’t even practice them. If our players do they’re looking over at the bench because they’re getting ready to come out. No shot-fake one-dribble pulls-up. None of that. We either get to the rim, get to the foul line or shoot threes.”

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So that’s what it looks like. The bigger question, though, may be this: Why exactly does Duggar Baucom play a style of basketball that no one else in the country even attempts?

In other words: Why has he set out to reinvent the wheel?

When his Uncle Eddie died at age 20, it was exactly like Hank Gathers. He died of his heart ailment while playing basketball. Uncle Eddie was only four years older than Baucom and was his best friend growing up. Five years later, on Easter Sunday, Baucom’s dad died of the same heart disease after an operation didn’t take. Baucom dropped out of school to help out his mother.

But 10 years later, Baucom was living the life he had hoped to live. He had always viewed the world as black and white, good and evil, and he felt a calling to become a cop and fight back against the bad guys. He had been a city cop and then went through six months of military-like patrol school to become a North Carolina state trooper. In his free time, he had worked as the junior varsity basketball coach under his old high school coach.

“I would have retired doing that,” Baucom said. “That was what I loved doing. I just felt like I made a difference. I thought the world needed people like that.”

His heart attack at age 30 came out of the blue. He had been in the best shape of his life. “I thought I was invincible,” he said – until he fell out of the shower, then spent the next five weeks in the hospital, then had a pacemaker installed, then found out his heart condition meant he could no longer be a state trooper.

At the time, it felt like a tragedy.

In reality, it set the next chapter of his life in motion.

He tried to sell insurance but he hated it. And he sure didn’t want to be stuck in a job he hated. He had always joked when he was a state trooper that if he could do it all over again, he’d be a college basketball coach.

Well, here it was: a chance to do it all over.

He finished his college degree by moving back in with his mother and getting side gigs as a bartender and waiter. He got an unpaid job working under Bob McKillop at Davidson. (His mom’s reaction when he told her it was unpaid: “Duggar, that’s not a job; that’s a hobby.”) Working under McKillop was like getting a masters degree in coaching, and from there, he got an assistant job at Northwestern State in Louisiana, paying $12,000 a year.

He read up on basketball philosophies, and he was especially intrigued by Grinnell College as well as by the team Hank Gathers played for, Paul Westhead’s fast-paced Loyola squads that were the favorite of Baucom’s childhood. His first head coaching job was at Tusculum College, a Division II school in Tennessee. The prior regime had played the painfully slow Princeton offense and the painfully slow pack-line defense.

He told them they’d play fast. They did, though it wasn’t nearly as fast as the style he came to be known for. The frenetic pace didn’t extend to the defense, where he stuck with the pack-line. The athletic director at VMI happened to be in the stands when Baucom’s squad was playing in the NCAA Division II tournament and decided to hire the coach with the fast style of playing ball.

But his first year at VMI, Baucom had a blackout spell. His pacemaker had eroded. It was the middle of his first season when he went into the hospital for a routine operation on that pacemaker, but it didn’t end up being that routine. What was supposed to be a 90-minute operation lasted six hours. He was done for the season.

Over the next nine months he was in hospitals for a total of 48 days: five heart operations in four different states, concluding with the installation of a defibrillator.

When he came back for his second season, the prospects seemed bleak. VMI had won only seven games his first year. The team had lost two starters to honor code violations. A week before the season started, the team didn’t have a gym to practice in. Baucom took his players to Roanoke for a team-building exercise.

It took a little while for Baucom to get things going at VMI.

He remembers the moment when he committed to go all-out with this crazy pace. Baucom was at a table at a Roanoke Outback Steakhouse with his assistant coaches. He took salt and pepper shakers and said they were the baskets. Pink Sweet’N Low packets were the offense, yellow Splenda packets were the defense. He started diagramming how they’d play. Baucom was going to speed everything up. Like, really speed it up, on offense and defense, spacing the floor on offense and constantly trapping on defense.

“This is how we’re going to play,” he told his assistants.

“Coach, do you think this will work?” one said.

“I have no idea,” he replied. “But desperate people do desperate things. So we’re gonna try.”

He explained the system to players at a practice two days later.

“They looked at me like I had four heads,” Baucom said. “And I told them, ‘If y’all believe in this system, here’s what will happen: We’ll win more games, we’ll lead the country in scoring, in 3-pointers made, in steals and assists.’ And I told our best player, ‘You’ll have chance to lead the country in scoring if you follow the system.’ ”

It all came true.

“I became like a prophet,” he said. “But I had no clue my vision was going to work.”

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The fact Duggar Baucom does this at all is eye-opening.

But the fact he has created this wild system of basketball at two supremely conservative military schools – places where cadet-athletes (not student-athletes) must roll their bedroll up in the corner every day, where they get up at 6 a.m. and march to the mess hall for breakfast, where they must follow a strict honor code – is astounding. His teams are 151-144 since that 7-20 first season at VMI, which is quite an accomplishment in a military environment.

Here’s what Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams had to say about Baucom after The Citadel hired him last offseason: “Establishing a distinct style of play that everyone in Division I is aware of is incredibly difficult. To have the audacity to do it at a place where it makes the least amount of sense completely speaks to the courage of Coach Baucom.”

Part of playing this fast-paced system is indeed courage. Baucom truly does not care about the critics. He does what he thinks is right.

“Once you’ve been through what I’ve been through health-wise, being a little risky on the basketball court is no big thing,” Baucom said. “I just don’t worry a whole lot. We’ve had critics. At VMI, I’d get hate emails from alums saying, ‘This isn’t basketball, y’all gave up 101 points!’ But if I was scoring 71 and giving up 62 nobody would say a word, and it’s the exact same thing.”

But the other part of Baucom’s wacky formula for success at VMI and The Citadel has nothing to do with courage.

It’s simply a matter of necessity.

“If you try to play like everyone else in the country when you have the unique recruiting challenges of a military college, you’ll blend in with everyone else and have a hard time competing,” said Legg, The Citadel’s announcer. “But if you have a system that’s different and that you can recruit to, you can put yourself at more of an advantage than you normally would.”

“It’s a challenge to get quality athletes to come in and be willing to do all the other things that going with being at The Citadel,” Legg continued. “It’d be easier to go somewhere you don’t have as much put on you on a daily basis. It takes a special kid to come to a school like The Citadel.”

It’s funny how quickly Baucom can make a convert. Sure, part of it is just what comes with winning. But there’s another part of it, too. People like when coaches trust their players to execute on their own. One of the scourges of college basketball is slow play. That’s why the game’s powers-that-be introduced so many rule changes before this season to speed things up. Too many coaches are control freaks; that’s why you see so many point guards staring over at the bench for their coach’s instructions as they walk the ball up the floor. They don’t want to screw up.

And that’s not a fun way to play sports.

“After a while at VMI, people would come up to me in the grocery store and say, ‘I can’t watch regular basketball anymore,” Baucom said. “The kids love it. They love the freedom, just teaching them how to play and trusting them to go do it. People tell me all the time, ‘I wish I could play like that.’ And I just stand there and think, ‘We don’t have a patent on it.’ ”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.