(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.

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Nebraska, Saint Mary’s land big upsets

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Thursday nights are slow in the college basketball world, but that doesn’t me we don’t have stuff to talk about.

Here are the three things you need to know about.

1. TIM MILES IS WELL ON HIS WAY TO SAVING HIS JOB

One of the most underdiscussed storylines of the college basketball season to date is that the coaches that entered the year on the hot seat are winning.

Clemson’s Brad Brownell might get back to the NCAA tournament. Bruce Pearl has made people at Auburn forget – briefly – about the internal investigation into the FBI allegations against the program. Even Jim Christian looks like he’s going to force BC to give him more time.

But Tim Miles might be the best example of this. After a flurry of transfers in the offseason and a change in athletic director, things looked pretty bleak for Miles. But he now has his Nebraska team sitting in a position where they are at least in the conversation for the bubble at beating No. 23 Michigan at home by 20 points.

The Huskers are not quite there yet. Monday’s game at No. 22 Ohio State is huge because it is the last ranked team on Nebraska’s schedule.

But that’s a ways off.

As of now, Nebraska fans can enjoy the fact that they’re 14-7 on the season and 5-3 in the Big Ten.

2. SAINT MARY’S WON THE MOST IMPORTANT GAME OF THEIR SEASON

Jock Landale went off for 26 points, 12 boards and three assists as Saint Mary’s extended their winning streak to 13 games and put themselves in a position where making a run at an NCAA tournament bid looks likely.

Our Travis Hines has a column up on this game here.

3. VIRGINIA CONTINUES TO LOOK LIKE THE BEST TEAM IN THE ACC

The Wahoos went into Atlanta and beat down Georgia Tech, 64-48, on Thursday night.

The most impressive thing about this season for Virginia isn’t that they are winning these games or that they are playing great defense or whatever. It’s that all of these wins they are collecting are impressive.

Georgia Tech never looked like they were really in this one, and the Yellow Jackets have been playing better of late and were at home. They beat N.C. State by 17. They handled North Carolina fairly easily. They embarrassed Virginia Tech on the road.

Virginia is really, really good, and the truth is that they are probably a year away from being their best selves.

CBT Podcast: Wichita State’s a mess, Trae Young’s struggles, Jamion Christian on transfers

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Rob Dauster was joined on Friday by Jamion Christian, the head coach of Mount St. Mary’s, for an enlightening and honest discussion about college basketball and transfers. There is a push to get transfers to be allowed to be immediately eligible, a push that many believe will have drastic, negative effects on coaches like Jamion. The two talk for 30 minutes about the ramifications of changing the rules before Rob is joined by Reags from the Fundamentally Sound podcast to go over the what happened to Trae Young, what happened to Wichita State’s defense and the weekend’s biggest games.

OPEN: Jamion Christian interview

30:22: Trae Young’s offensive issues

44:50: Does Wichita State have the most pressing defensive worries?

52:45: Weekend preview and picks ATS

Craft Beer Of The Week: Stone Xocoveza

Hunter scores 17 points, No. 2 Virginia beats Ga Tech 64-48

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ATLANTA (AP) — Virginia got off to a sluggish start offensively.

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, their defense never takes a night off.

De’Andre Hunter came off the bench to score 17 points and No. 2 Virginia turned in another defensive masterpiece Thursday, stretching its winning streak to nine in a row with a 64-48 victory over Georgia Tech.

The Cavaliers (17-1, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) limited Georgia Tech to 40.5 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers, leading to 16 points.

“The defense held us in there until we got a little rhythm and hit some shots,” coach Tony Bennett said. “We were stingy to score against. That always carries you on the road.”

Virginia snapped a four-game winning streak for the Yellow Jackets (10-8, 3-2).

After making the first basket of the game, Georgia Tech quickly got an idea of what kind of night it would be. The Jackets missed their next eight shots and turned it over four times before Josh Okogie finally broke a nearly eight-minute scoreless drought with a dunk off a backdoor pass.

Virginia shot just 40 percent in the first half but still led 28-19 at the break.

Georgia Tech never got any closer the rest of the way.

“They’re just a very disciplined team offensively and defensively,” Yellow Jackets center Ben Lammers said. “That makes it very difficult. You can’t make a mistake or you’ll pay for it.”

The last gasp for the home team essentially came in the closing seconds of the first half. It looked as though the Jackets would go to the locker room on a bit of a high after Curtis Haywood hit his second 3-pointer from far beyond the stripe, closing the gap to 24-19.

But Hunter got free in the corner and knocked down a trey with 0.1 seconds left in the half, turning it into a four-point play when Abdoulaye Gueye foolishly went for the block and sent the Virginia player sprawling to the court .

The free throw gave the Cavaliers their biggest lead of the opening period.

“That’s definitely not the way you want to end a half,” Lammers said. “We were on a little bit of a roll. It’s definitely a bit of a downer for our team. I think it helped their momentum.”

Virginia steadily pulled away over the final 20 minutes, dominating the inside for a 44-20 edge on points in the paint. Ty Jerome added 12 points, while Devon Hall and Kyle Guy had 11 apiece.

Tadric Jackson led Georgia Tech with 14 points. No one else was in double figures.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers held an opponent under 50 points for the eighth time this season. They came into the night allowing the fewest points of any Division I team, and actually improved on their 52.9 average. That helped to cover for a tough night from 3-point range on which the Cavs connected on just 3 of 13 attempts.

Georgia Tech: Okogie, averaging 18.8 points per game, struggled to get open and finished with just nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. But coach Josh Pastner is especially concerned about Lammers, who attempted only five shots, made one and finished with four points. “We’ve got to get more out of him offensively,” Pastner said. “When you’re not scoring, it sucks the life out of you.”

WILKINS STEPS UP

The Cavaliers switched things up a bit against Lammers, turning to Isaiah Wilkins to handle the bulk of the defensive duties.

When the teams met last season , 6-foot-10 Jack Salt limited Lammers to seven points on 3-of-12 shooting.

This time, it was the 6-foot-7 Wilkins — the stepson of former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins — making life miserable for Georgia Tech’s big man.

“He played to his personality,” Bennett said. “He’s such a giver. He thinks help. He thinks cover for teammates. He knows how to anticipate. If you can find that, it’s worth its weight in gold for a defensive player.”

PACKED PAVILION

It was an especially disappointing performance for the Yellow Jackets, considering it came before their first sellout of the season at 8,600-seat McCamish Pavilion.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Plays its second straight ACC road game at Wake Forest on Sunday.

Georgia Tech: Faces a short turnaround before traveling to Chapel Hill on Saturday for another game against a ranked opponent, No. 15 North Carolina.

Palmer scores 19, leads Huskers in 72-52 rout of Michigan

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — James Palmer Jr. scored 19 points, Isaiah Roby had a career-high 14 and Nebraska beat No. 23 Michigan 72-52 on Thursday night for its first win over the Wolverines since joining the Big Ten.

Nebraska (14-7, 5-3), which needed Palmer’s 3-pointer to beat last-place Illinois 64-63 on Monday, led 32-21 at the half and never let Michigan get closer than 10 points in the last 17 minutes.

Michigan (16-5, 5-3), which had won nine of its last 10, suffered its most lopsided loss of the season and had a season-low for points. Charles Matthews had 15 points for the Wolverines, who shot 37.5 percent from the floor and a season-low 22.2 percent (4 of 18) on 3-pointers.

The Wolverines had come in 8-0 against the Huskers since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011-12, and they had won 10 straight in the series.

In the final regular-season game last year, Michigan won 93-57 in Lincoln, the Huskers’ most lopsided home loss in program history. Michigan set the arena record for points by an opponent and matched the arena record with 14 made 13-pointers in that game.

Nebraska was in total control this time.

The Huskers played strong defense on the perimeter and forced nine of Michigan’s 12 turnovers the first 20 minutes. Roby, Duby Okeke and Jordy Tshimanga rendered Moritz Wagner a non-factor.

Wagner, who scored 27 points last Saturday against Michigan State and had reached double figures in all but two games, missed his only shot of the half. He finished with a season-low two points, his only basket coming on a dunk early in the second half.

Roby had two dunks and another basket during an 18-4 run that turned Nebraska’s 12-10 deficit into a 28-16 lead. The Wolverines went scoreless for more than 6 minutes and without a field goal for 7½ as the Huskers broke things open. The Wolverines missed 14 of their last 16 shots of the half.

The Huskers built the lead to 21 with less than 5 minutes to play.

Tshimanga, who missed the last two games for personal reasons, entered the game in the middle of the first half. The first time he touched the ball, he passed to Roby for a dunk.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: Though the Wolverines have owned Nebraska, Pinnacle Bank Arena is a tough place to play, and they might have been out of gas after an emotional win over Michigan State and having to rally to beat Maryland 68-67 on Monday.

Nebraska: This was a crucial win for a team that has hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. Michigan came into the game No. 30 in the RPI; no other opponent Nebraska has beaten is in the top 50. Another big opportunity comes Monday when the Huskers visit Ohio State (No. 18 RPI).

UP NEXT

Michigan hosts Rutgers on Sunday.

Nebraska visits No. 22 Ohio State on Monday.

St. Mary’s gets critical NCAA tourney resume win over No. 13 Gonzaga

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No one should probably get too worked about about one game in mid-January.

First of all, it’s one game. Forty minutes of small sample size randomness that could very well mean next to nothing.

Second, there is still nearly two months of regular season to play. What seems important now very well could fade to irrelevance come mid-March. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to attach much meaning to one game between two teams well ahead of when the stakes are actually clear.

Unless you’re St. Mary’s and you’re at Gonzaga.

Then, you can get hyped.

The Gaels finally delivered a resume-boosting win this season by dispatching the 13th-ranked Bulldogs, 74-71, in Spokane to invigorate a season that seemed destined to end with plenty of wins but few – if any – that really mattered.

Yeah, it’s one game. Yeah, it’s mid-January. Yeah, a lot can happen between now and Selection Sunday to render this moot. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But make no mistake about it, St. Mary’s beating Gonzaga at The Kennell is a monumental victory for Randy Bennett’s team when the Gaels lacked even a notable one before it.

St. Mary’s non-conference schedule has become a tired topic, but it is absolutely why they find themselves in such a high-stake game just a couple weeks after New Year’s. It’s also perhaps maybe less their fault than ever. Bennett can’t be faulted for Cal being awful and Dayton being down. Those should be solid wins. But they aren’t. Then there’s the loss to Washington State. That should have been an opportunity for a good win. Instead it’s become a blight on their resume with the Cougars unable to compete in the anemic Pac 12.The one true chance for a meaningful win came against Georgia, and the Bulldogs nipped them in OT.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of wins on the resume for the Gaels, but not a lot of substance. Beating up a couple times each the likes of Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Santa Clara doesn’t exactly move the needle.

That’s what made Thursday night so incredibly critical for St. Mary’s, and, if we’re being honest, for college basketball. The Gaels are absolutely one of the 68 best teams in the country. Conservatively, I’d say somewhere around the top 30. The NCAA tournament simply would have been worse off without them.

They showed why against Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs looked poised to pull away on numerous occasions, leading by as many as nine in the second half, but the Gaels wouldn’t let them gain comfortable separation. There was always an answer.

At least there was always Jock Landale.

The 6-foot-11 senior brought his All-American stuff to Spokane, going for 26 points on 12 of 15 shooting while also posting 12 rebounds and three assists. There’s not much flash to Landale’s game, but his fundamentals do the work for him. He established great position early and just went to work, abusing Gonzaga’s frontline time and again.

Landale is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country while simultaneously being one of its better rebounders. That’s a dude who in his senior year needs to be in the NCAA tournament. I won’t hear arguments to the contrary.

This win doesn’t guarantee a spot for the Gaels, obviously. They can’t afford a major slip-up, and another win against the Zags would go a long way, but it at least puts them in a tenable position with more than six weeks until March.

It’s the cruel reality of life in the WCC. Whether it would have won or lost Thursday night, St. Mary’s clearly established itself as a peer to Gonzaga, a team whom no one wonders about its NCAA tournament viability. St. Mary’s is right there with them. If they would have lost, it may not have mattered. The W-L, the RPI and the resume just wouldn’t have enough evidence to support what was so readily apparent to anyone watching.

They did win, though.

Sure, it’s still only one game. Sure, it’s still early. Sure, plenty can still go wrong.

Sure beats the alternative, though.