Un-Wreaking Havoc Comment Count

Ace March 22nd, 2013 at 2:27 PM

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.



March 22nd, 2013 at 2:34 PM ^

This is painfully obvious, but GRIII/Stauskas will likely have a LOT of open 3-point attempts if we break the press and get the resulting 2 offensive players with 1 defender who tries to keep from getting dunked on.  If we can hit a few of these early, it might take them out of their gameplan.


March 22nd, 2013 at 2:36 PM ^

Good write-up Ace. I feel like everyone is focusing on the Havoc defense, and rightly so, but the other thing I feel teams have to watch out for is guarding the 3 point line in transition. I saw them hit many open looks from 3 when they were able to push, drive, and kick and that would obviously be nice to avoid.


March 22nd, 2013 at 2:36 PM ^

I agree that we'll see more of Albrecht, but he's got to avoid his tendency to overdribble, which Raftery mentioned yesterday. From Winn's first article, it seems like a point guard that attempts to dribble his way past his man is looking for a blindside trap in his face, particularly if he puts his head down.


March 22nd, 2013 at 2:36 PM ^

2 things with all of that....you can't account for speed. The VCU team speed is much much quicker than Arkansas and secondly VCU expects to win where it seems like Arkansas hopes to win.

Also, if your not making shots then the press is still effective. This will be a test to see how good the other guards are with pressure on them with the ball. Team hasn't seen this kind of pressure all year long.

Also if the bigs were ever going to get something going inside this is the game to do it.


March 22nd, 2013 at 3:31 PM ^

I noticed the differences between Arkansas and VCU pretty quickly as well.  Seems like VCU is just a lot better at the press than Arkansas.  On Arkansas's double teams they were standing 3 steps off the ballhandler and just ambling up to him.  VCU jumps him.  It's the best comparison we have, but, well... there's really no comparison.  I still think we'll be alright though.  We have a much better PG and just a more athletic team in general than any of the opponents in the havoc video.  Our underclassmen have also played like underclassmen for the past 2 months, however, which is worrying in a game like this where composure is everything.


March 22nd, 2013 at 4:05 PM ^

Send them ahead for alley oop dunks. Or Stauskus in place of one of those two can go 45 for 50 in wide open threes. Let Spike/Trey/Caris bring it up w/ McGary available as a big body w/ surprising athleticism as a safety valve.

Blue Durham

March 23rd, 2013 at 10:23 AM ^

Yes, as important it is to have a couple of good ball handlers on the court, you also need to have guys that can finish; particularly at the basket.  Robinson, Hardaway and McGary should have big games with a number of dunks.

The team has to have the mentality to make VCU pay for the chances they take with the press and not be satisfied with just getting the ball over the time line.  That would be like giving them a free pass.


March 22nd, 2013 at 2:51 PM ^

I don't think THJ will lose many minutes. Breaking the press is great, but you have to score once you break it. Even if Michigan can play smart and not turn it over, it doesn't mean they're going to get open layups all day.


March 22nd, 2013 at 3:20 PM ^

Also Levert has shown a tendency to get rattled in big games. Playing VCU's press in the NCAA tournament is a pretty easy way to get rattled. I'm going to be pretty nervous if Caris is bringing the ball up against heavy man pressure. I would definitely rather see Hardaway/Spike out there.


March 22nd, 2013 at 3:11 PM ^

Not to pick too heavily on that video supplied by VCU, but at least a third of the turnovers they showed being forced were after the press had been broken and guys just got sloppy.  Butler handled them pretty well if memory serves me right, and good teams with big guards don't have a huge problem with their size. 

It's an aggressive style that works against teams in short bursts, but UM isn't going to let VCU run over them, and that half-court defense looks mediocre.  


March 22nd, 2013 at 3:35 PM ^

A third were people who got sloppy (VCU's take would be "they were playing faster than they were comfortable", but they were self-inflicted mistakes regardless of the spin); another third or so looked like blatant uncalled fouls.  I foresee a lot of complaining about the refs in my near future.

TMS-Mr. Ace

March 22nd, 2013 at 3:53 PM ^

and only Burke to dribble in this press.  I guess Spike would be my #2, but I don't want Levert, THJ, or Stauskas putting the ball on the floor until they are past half court.

GR3 is going to be huge in this game.  Once the press is broken he should be in the corner for the open three or slashing to the bucket for an oop.  I like this matchup.

The Rake

March 22nd, 2013 at 4:14 PM ^

To breaking the havoc. Jut up to kids to execute. Hopefully playing a relative home game can also play into our hands. I don't like his matchup but I do think the pace can help us in spots. This is a tough draw but very winnable. Go Blue!


March 22nd, 2013 at 4:18 PM ^

Two things concern me:

1) We only have one day of prep.  I think if we had 4 days of prep, I wouldn't be worried.

2) The Atlantic 10 is ripping through the tourney right now.  


March 22nd, 2013 at 7:41 PM ^

The media is in love with VCU and if you didn't watch any games this year you would think they went undefeated. The obviously did not and I honestly think we not only win, but win big. We are way more athletic and skilled than the other teams in the A10.


March 22nd, 2013 at 10:30 PM ^

The physical talent is there, sure.  If Michigan keeps their composure, this won't be a contest.

The problem is the key matchup itself -- VCU tries to get teams to panic, and Michigan is prone to being rattled.  That's not a knock on them; it's just the fact that they're young and we all know it.  There's no question Burke has the talent to shred VCU's trap, but the big question is, will he remember that?  The danger here isn't that he'll panic and cough up the ball like a n00b (that's more THJ's job); rather, he has a tendency to put pressure on himself in big games.  He might try to take on VCU's D single-handed if Michigan gets its pocket picked a few times.  That would be the ultimate disaster, because one-man basketball plays right into VCU's hands.

Second, the video emphasized their inbounds trap and there's been discussion here about the halfcourt D, but there's a gap between the two -- I see danger in their 1-2-1-1 zone.  The long passes didn't work because while transition D is generally known for being vulnerable to the pass (as defenders racing back are often out of position), VCU played the court like football DBs.  There were passing windows but they were NFL-small.  That zone takes full advantage of just how cramped a basketball court is when you're trying to lob a forward pass.  IF you can get them into a halfcourt D they're vulnerable, sure, but this zone D is designed to make it difficult to get there.  The danger here isn't panic; it's impatience Most offenses are not used to needing 10-15 seconds just to get to the 3-point arc; VCU is trying to get guards to force a play.

Whatever the media says, I like their style.  The coach could be a disciple of Sun Tzu the way he gets his players attacking others' weaknesses while minimizing their own.  They can't match up against big bodies so they attack the mind.  This VCU team shouldn't do well against well-prepared veterans, but with teams getting younger and younger as the NBA and now D-league aren't shy about sucking up young talent, this is a good strategy to have in today's college ball.

I still favor Michigan, but if I was to make a prediction, it won't be a Michigan victory per se.  Rather, I think one way or the other, this won't be close.  VCU's tactics will either work or they won't.  If VCU takes advantage of Michigan's youth they'll force a lot of ugly turnovers en route to a 10-point Michigan loss.  If Michigan can assert its physical advantages early, the offense will annihilate VCU with the bigs scoring 20+ each.


March 23rd, 2013 at 5:33 AM ^

And I agree with almost all of it, but one caveat...Burke does seem to put a lot of pressure on himself in big games but Thursday when he wasn't hitting his shots, he did a great job of being the distributor of the ball to the guys who were shooting well.  I'm thinking this will be the key to beating the press using a team effort with the short passes like Ace wrote in the OP. 

Should be a great game to watch though.  Really looking forward to it.

General Agrippa

March 22nd, 2013 at 10:29 PM ^

Lifelong Michigan fan by way of my mother. VCU alumni. Tomorrow is a day I knew would eventually come. A shame it had to be in the tournament where one team will have to go home. I'll be wearing my VCU Final Four shirt and my block M hat. 

I have never been more objective about a sporting event in my entire life. I think I'll just drink and cheer when either team scores. 


March 23rd, 2013 at 10:31 AM ^

Correct that the in-bounder as safety is a common counter punch for the "diamond" press.  Also, look for the two half court help players to flash to the mid-line when the ball is away from their assigned sideline.  I'm assuming this will be GRIII and/or THJ.  Once that ball finds the mid-line, the two guards can shoot the sidelines and off we go.

One caveat, I do think VCU pushes the second trap more than Arkansas did (usually falling back into a soft man behind that first mid-line pass).  How well we decide to push or pull up and run offense is the deciding factor in this whole thing.