(Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Half Court Havoc: A subtle tweak in philosophy provides Will Wade blueprint for success at VCU

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The hardest thing to do as a college basketball coach is to be the guy that follows ‘The Guy’.

Just ask Iowa State’s Steve Prohm. He was given the unenviable task of replacing Fred Hoiberg, an Ames native, Iowa State alum and campus icon that was nicknamed ‘the Mayor’ and turned the Cyclones from a cellar-dweller into a Big 12 contender and, entering the season, a preseason top ten team. After losses to Northern Iowa, Texas and Baylor — at home, nonetheless — the pressure started mounting, eventually getting to the point where Prohm had to isolate himself from social media.

“I deleted [FaceBook and Twitter] now so I don’t have to see it,” he said last month. “But it’s hard. I care. I came here to do great job here and I love this place, I love this school and the fans. I don’t want to let anybody down. So yeah, [the criticism] bothers you and it hurts you as a human.”

Josh Pastner is going through the same thing.

He won his 150th game as Memphis head coach earlier this season, getting there one game faster than John Calipari did, but since he was forced to follow in Cal’s footsteps — since he has to deal with the burden of expectation from a fan base that got used to top ten rankings and trips to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament — there’s a good chance that this will be his final season coaching the Tigers.

That’s not all that different from the situation that Will Wade was walking into at VCU last spring. The 33-year old Wade was hired to replace his former boss, Shaka Smart, who had taken the Rams from being a good mid-major program to a Final Four, the Atlantic 10 and an annual appearance in the preseason top 25.

And while Wade has had to deal with the loss of the team’s two best players, the most talented sophomore and the program’s two best incoming freshmen — not to mention their head coach — he has managed to do something that Shaka never did and that hasn’t been done since Eric Maynor and Anthony Grant were leading this team through the CAA back in 2007: He’s got the Rams sitting at 9-0 in the league, all alone atop the Atlantic 10.

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Since Shaka took over at VCU, there have really been two things that the program was known for: The Peppas, VCU’s pep band that tears up every arena they set foot in, and ‘Havoc’.

The Peppas are still as prominent as they’ve ever been in the Siegel Center, but the days of VCU’s over-aggressive, full-court pressure are more or less over. Wade’s iteration of the Rams still force turnovers and gamble for steals, only they’re doing it in a much more limited and controlled fashion.

Diet Havoc, if you will. Or, as Wade phrases it, “Half-court Havoc.”

Part of that change was the direct result of the personnel that Wade inherited. We may never see a college basketball player more perfectly and uniquely suited to playing the point of a full-court, pressuring defense than Briante Weber was, and with Weber — who was on track to steamroll the NCAA’s career record for steals before he tore his ACL last January — graduating, VCU was left without Havoc’s engine.

“A lot of the press was good because Briante could just take the ball from you. He was a once in a generation type player,” Wade said. “I’ll be lucky if I coach Briante Weber one more time in my career. You’ve gotta have some sort of special talent like that to make it work, and if you don’t, you’re just kind of beating your head against a wall.”

“And we don’t really have that.”

In other words, even if Shaka was still in Richmond and not Austin, there was a good chance that the defense VCU utilized this season would have looked different than it did the last four years.

But Wade also has a different philosophical approach to the game than Shaka: He doesn’t like to gamble as much. Trapping in the back court may get you layups and wide-open threes in transition, but it will also allow for opponents to get just as many clean looks from beyond the arc and at the rim.

“And I don’t like giving up layups,” Wade said.

Prior to taking over at VCU, Wade spent two seasons as the head coach at Chattanooga, and while he spent those two seasons developing the program’s brand the same way that Shaka built ‘Havoc’ into something far more than just a defense they ran — Wade termed his brand ‘Chaos’ — the defense that he won with was a 2-2-1 zone press that dropped back to a 2-3 matchup zone. For comparison’s sake, it’s not all that dissimilar from what Rick Pitino runs at Louisville.

That’s the defense that Wade’s VCU program now runs. They’ll also play quite a bit of man-to-man, but their pressure these days isn’t designed to force turnovers as much as it is token pressure, a way to bleed out some of the shot clock so that, “we don’t have to guard your actions as much in the half court.” That said, the Rams still play aggressive defense in the half court, forcing a turnover on nearly a quarter of their defensive possessions, but even that took some time for the Rams to figure out.

As did VCU’s offense.

The other major change that Wade made was how this team goes about scoring points. Instead of relying on transition opportunities and live-ball steals to create shots, Wade put in a ball-screen continuity offense and demanded that his team give the bigs on the roster touches in the post. It wasn’t the easiest of transitions, not with so many players in larger roles with more — and new — responsibilities.

As of today, VCU has won 12 straight games and currently sits all alone atop the Atlantic 10 standings at 9-0. But six weeks ago, there was some genuine concern about this group. They had gone just 5-5 in their first ten games, losing to all five high-major teams on their schedule, and entered league play as a team that was still grappling with their identity.

That’s when the pressure started to build.

“Our guys felt that people were questioning whether certain people were good enough,” Wade said. He wasn’t worried, not yet. The last loss that VCU suffered, on Dec. 19th against Cincinnati, Wade finally saw his team turning a corner. They followed that up with four straight wins against overmatched opponents before making the trek to Hagan Arena to take on Saint Joseph’s in what would prove to be a pivotal moment in VCU’s season.

“We rallied from like 13 down with five or six minutes left and won it at the end, our second conference game,” Wade said. St. Joe’s is still the best win on VCU’s résumé. “It gave us the jolt we needed. We needed something good to happen to us to spring us forward and get that belief going. It was really tough to sell our guys on how good you are and how much progress you see after the Cincinnati loss.”

Suddenly, that matchup zone was just that much more active. Those open threes Melvin Johnson, the team’s leading scorer at 19.0 points, was getting were just that much more in rhythm. JeQuan Lewis was figuring out how to be the leader, a facilitator that takes over when his team needs him. He had 29 points in an overtime win at Richmond and 22 against Davidson.

And the result is that Wade’s first team at VCU has the inside track on accomplishing something else that Shaka never did with the Rams: winning a conference regular season title.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Louisville’s Mitchell declaring for draft, won’t hire an agent

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Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell is the latest to decide to see what the NBA might offer.

“I have decided to test the waters and not hire an agent!” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday. “I am excited to work out this summer for teams and hopefully participate in the NBA combine! I want it to be clear I have not decided to leave Louisville!”

Mitchell, who is expected to be joined by dozens of players, is taking advantage of new NCAA rules that allow him to work out for teams and attend the NBA draft combine before making a decision on whether to remain in the draft and return to school.

Players have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

Mitchell averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, shooting 40.8 percent overall and 35.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a potential first-round pick, but should he return, the Cardinals would project as one of the top teams in the country with nearly the entire core returning from this year’s 25-9 squad.

Moe-mentum: Wagner stands tall for Sweet 16-bound Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.

“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”

Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.

The Wolverines have won six in a row since they were involved in a plane accident on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener.

After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville – with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.

The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.

The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.

The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan – two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past – Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.

An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.

Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.

“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts – I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”

The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season – no other Michigan player has more than 80 – and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michigan won 92-91 .

Against Louisville in the round of 32 , Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.

“He’s always just been an excited guy – play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”

The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.

What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway .

There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.

Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why – and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.

“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”

 

California’s Ivan Rabb declares for the NBA Draft

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Ivan Rabb announced on Wednesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft and foregoing his final two seasons with California.

“I want to thank everybody for their support,” Rabb said in a statement. “Since the day I committed to Cal, the love from Bay Area fans was overwhelming. I could genuinely tell that people really appreciated seeing me come to Cal and succeed and do well. Haas Pavilion will always hold a special place in my heart, and I won’t forget how incredible it felt to be “Oakland’s Own” as I ran onto the court in front of my friends, family and team.”

As a sophomore, Rabb averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 boards. He’s projected as a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft a year after making the decision to return to school as a projected lottery pick last season.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum declares for the NBA Draft

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Duke’s Jayson Tatum will declare for the NBA Draft and hire an agent, the program announced on Wednesday.

Tatum is a projected top five pick in the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.8 points playing the role of small-ball four for the Blue Devils this season after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.

“I have absolutely loved coaching Jayson Tatum,” Coach K said in a statement. “His skill set and work ethic will make him a star in the NBA. Whichever team selects him will be getting a humble, thoughtful and talented young man whom we are proud to call a member of the Duke basketball brotherhood.”

Tatum was the most talented player on the Blue Devils this season, but it was an up and down year for Duke as a whole. They were predicted by just about everyone to win the national title back in the preseason, but they eventually bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.