As you're probably well aware by now, Michigan will face one of the country's most distinctive, attacking defenses when they play VCU on Saturday. While saying a game comes down to one factor is oversimplification, of course, in this case it's not unfair to say that how the Wolverines handle VCU's press will largely determine the outcome. With that said, let's take a deeper look at Havoc.
What Is It?
From VCU's official YouTube account. They like their RAWK, apparently.
Brian already blockquoted one Luke Winn article on VCU's press—a must-read before Saturday—in the game preview. Here's another description from Winn in a full-blown SI feature on Havoc from last month:
When VCU reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2011, Smart's second season as coach, its defense was not nearly as turnover-crazy, forcing takeaways on 22.1% of possessions. "That," Smart says, "was only half-Havoc." Full Havoc is now in place, complete with a full array of jargon: double-fist is VCU's man-to-man trap, which it uses roughly two thirds of the time; diamond is its 1-2-1-1 zone; a madman guards the inbounder and makes sure, Smart says, "he can smell your breath"; a jammer is occasionally employed to keep the ball from being inbounded to a point guard; heating up the ball means putting the dribbler under duress.
Ball-combusting guards are what make the double-fist deadly, and the Rams have three excellent ones in senior Darius Theus (steal percentage: 5.9), junior Rob Brandenburg (2.9%) and sophomore sixth man Briante Weber (8.3%, which leads the nation). As a pack they are called the Wild Dogs.
Although Smart graduated magna cum laude from Kenyon College, Wild Dogs is an inadvertent reference to Marcus Antonius's line from Julius Caesar: "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war." The nickname has primal, rather than Shakespearean, roots.
VCU's athletic department put together a lengthy highlight reel of all the chaos their press created a couple years ago—as you can see above, "Havoc" is an apt description. This is an aggressive, trap-heavy press designed to create maximum chaos, both in creating turnovers and forcing teams to play at an uncomfortably fast tempo.
Have We Seen It?
Well, kind of. Michigan played one press-heavy team this year: Arkansas, a team that gave them a world of issues the previous year at their place. This season, in Crisler, the Wolverines handled the Arkansas press with relative ease, turning the ball over only 11 times en route to a 13-point victory.
The difference between Arkansas and VCU is apparent on film, however. The Razorbacks place far less emphasis on the trap, and deployed the press less frequently in general than VCU will—Arkansas pressed after some made baskets, but VCU will trap after all of them.
How Do You Beat It?
Against Arkansas, Michigan used the inbounder as a safety outlet when the Razorbacks trapped the point guard or denied him the ball entirely. This is a common strategy and one that worked out well, at least as long as Tim Hardaway Jr. wasn't losing his dribble after breaking the pressure:
The going won't be as easy against VCU, but it's clear that this is Michigan's go-to move to break the initial trap. There's no magic bullet for navigating the press, however; instead, a few general rules:
- Get the ball in quickly. The less time VCU has to set up their press, the better. Michigan took their sweet time in the above clips, but Arkansas was also far less aggressive than the Rams will be.
- Avoid the corners. Getting the ball to the corner—either in your own end off the initial inbound, or just after crossing halfcourt—is asking for a quick trap and a turnover.
- Make quick, easy passes. Keep it simple—you can see in the VCU-produced video just how often long outlet passes result in disaster, even if the intended target is open.
- Always look ahead. VCU is looking to incite panic, and nothing is more of a panic move than turning your back and covering the ball instead of looking up for a quick pass.
- Stay calm. Even when teams break the VCU press, they often play too fast and cough up the ball in the ensuing halfcourt possession. Getting across halfcourt is step one. Step two is looking for an easy bucket, and settling into the normal offense if one isn't available.
Keys For Saturday
I'm expecting to see a few things tomorrow:
- More Spike. VCU doesn't have the size to punish Michigan for going small, so expect to see Albrecht on the court a fair amount—not in place of Trey Burke, of course, but alongside him.
- More LeVert, too. Tim Hardaway Jr. is good at a lot of things, but dribbling in the open court is not one of them. LeVert is a much better ballhandler, even at this stage in his career, and could see a lot of time if Hardaway becomes a liability in his own end. Burke, Albrecht, Stauskas, and LeVert give the team four reliable players with the ball in their hands, which should be enough to minimize turnovers.
- Burke tearing up the sideline. While breaking the press is very much a team effort, one player can break a trap if he's particularly quick. Trey Burke, well, he's pretty good; if he can split a double or find an opening up the sideline, he's obviously the best option for breaking the press and immediately getting into the offense. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Burke as the inbounder, especially when Albrecht is on the floor—that keeps Burke out of the corner and, with a quick return pass, gives him the entire width of the court to work with.
- Smart counters. Brian pointed out that VCU's halfcourt defense in the first few moments after teams break their press is not very good, which isn't a huge surprise—that's the time when they're scrambling the most to get set. The Wolverines should be able to get some very nice looks right after they cross halfcourt. The key is to take what's there and not try to force the issue—and play right into VCU's preferred tempo—if there isn't a good shot to take right away.
These are words I may regret, but I think this matchup is actually a good one for Michigan. Unlike last year, they have multiple guys who are trustworthy to be the primary ballhandler—along with Burke, I trust Albrecht, LeVert, and Stauskas to successfully get the ball up the court against pressure. They don't turn the ball over much. They have the shooters and transition finishers to make VCU pay dearly when they can't force a turnover
As long as the young guards don't get flustered—both in getting the ball up the floor and settling into the offense once they get there—then Michigan should handle the press, well, at least a whole lot better than Akron did. If they can break even, or come close, in the turnover battle, the other matchups with VCU strongly favor the Wolverines.