Villanova’s win is evidence of why VCU may have peaked as a basketball program

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BROOKLYN — This is what happens when ‘Havoc’ doesn’t create havoc.

And this is why there is a ceiling for just how good VCU can be.

No. 12 Villanova beat the brakes off of No. 15 VCU on Monday night in the opening round of the Legends Classic, the 77-53 final not doing justice to just how dominant the Wildcats were in the final 20 minutes. After scoring the first six points of the second half, VCU watched helplessly as Villanova went on a 19-2 run that, at one point, was extended to a 45-15 surge.

How did this happen?

It’s simple, really. VCU’s famed ‘Havoc’ system was completely ineffective.

Here’s how ‘Havoc’ works: The Rams spend 40 minutes pressing full-court. They have a number of different looks they can give — sometimes it’s straight man-to-man, sometimes they double the first pass in the back court, sometimes they are trying to get ball-handlers sprinting up the sideline with a trailer coming to trap them — but regardless of which press they are using, the Rams are in the jocks of opposing guards for 94 feet. They want to make it impossible for the team they play to get the ball over half court. They want to make dribbling a nightmare. They want to make the game as sloppy and choppy and turnover-ridden as possible.

There’s more to it, however, than just a press. Shaka Smart spends the entire offseason putting his roster full of lightening quick guards and long, lanky wings through grueling workouts, demanding his players be in better physical condition than anyone they will face during the season. So not only are they trapping and flying all over the court the whole game, they are wearing teams down in the process. They know they can run longer and harder than anyone they play.

They want to test a team’s stamina while they create havoc on a basketball court.

And on Monday night, they didn’t do that.

“They have sound ball-handlers and they pass the ball well,” Smart said of Villanova. “They don’t make unforced turnovers. We were not ourselves in terms of pressuring the ball, closing down traps, getting our hands on the basketball, flying around the way we need to fly around.”

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Villanova finished with just nine turnovers on the night. Five of them were committed by starting big men JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu, and three of those where travels called on Pinkston. Another one was a shot clock violation, meaning that only five of those nine turnovers were live ball turnovers.

“That’s huge against teams like that,” Jay Wright said. “It’s better sometimes to get a five-second call or a shot-clock violation than it is to jump in the air and throw the ball away. Those turn into buckets.”

He’s right. Whether it’s a pick-six layup or a three-point shooter spotting up in transition, VCU relies heavily on being able to create offense with their defense. That’s not solely by design, either. The Rams are not a very good team in the half court. They really only have one shooter on the roster — Melvin Johnson — and he can be streaky. Beyond that, and with all due respect to Briante Weber, the only guy on the roster that can be considered a scorer is Treveon Graham.

VCU had just 11 points off of turnovers on Monday. Villanova had more, with 13.

The other issue with VCU’s ineffectiveness in the press is that they just simply are not a good defensive team in the half court. They get beaten off the dribble too easily, they were late on their rotations for much of the second half, there are no shot blockers around the rim to eliminate defensive mistakes. If you break that press, more than likely you’ll end up with a good shot on that possession

“That’s an area we need to improve,” Smart said.

All of this brings me back to my larger point: There is a ceiling to how good this VCU team can be, and they may have already reached it.

Good basketball teams have quality guard play. Not every top 25 program is going to have the kind of depth and experience that Villanova has — Ryan Arcidiacono is a three-year starter, Darrun Hilliard is a senior, Dylan Ennis is a redshirt junior — but most of them are going to have a back court that doesn’t get intimidated by pressure and that won’t be overwhelmed even if they do have to deal with 40 minutes of havoc.

Most top 25 programs, particularly those that play in the power five conferences, are going to have the athletes to match up with the Rams as well. You’re not as likely to be overwhelmed by someone with Weber’s quickness when your point guard is a top 50 recruit or a kid that will be playing professionally somewhere when he is done in college.

In simpler terms, the teams that VCU is going to compete with for things like trips to the Sweet 16 or a spot in the Top 25 are going to be markedly less susceptible to their press than those that they play in the Atlantic 10 or that they squared off with in the CAA. There’s only so far that a team can go when their entire system is built around being quicker, more athletic and in better shape than their opponent.

Now I’ll freely admit that, with the way VCU is recruiting, this could change. Their current freshmen class has a chance to be very, very good. Terry Larrier was a top 50 prospect that picked the Rams over UConn and is long, athletic and skilled. Justin Tillman, Jonathan Williams and Michael Gilmore all fit what VCU wants to do and should thrive in this system. The Rams already have commitments from Kenny Williams and Tevin Mack, top 100 prospects that will enter college with a reputation for being big time scorers. Mack, like Larrier, picked VCU over UConn.

There’s no denying that is a good sign for the Rams, particularly the fact Smart is bringing more talented scorers into the mix. He’s upgrading the talent level in the program, which can be risky given the fact that VCU found their initial success when Smart brought in kids that were overlooked. Will Larrier and other highly touted recruits play with the same chip-on-their-shoulder, we-have-something-to-proof mentality that has been one of VCU’s identities?

It’s also worth noting here that VCU’s run to the Final Four came at a time when the Rams were not yet in the throes of ‘Havoc’. That team, led by Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen, found success more by being able to spread the floor and catching fire from three at the right time than they did by overwhelming teams with their press.

And all this is to say nothing of the fact that Smart may not be at VCU long enough to see his 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes come into their own. He’s always going to be a hot name because using the ‘Havoc’ system will ensure that his teams are always finishing at the top of the Atlantic 10. His teams should always reach the NCAA tournament. It’s not a fluke that he’s been able to find some success.

So please, don’t take this as me ripping VCU because I don’t like them or because I have an axe to grind with the Rams.

I don’t.

Not even close.

There aren’t many programs in the country that are easier to deal with as media than the Rams. Smart is an intelligent guy, one that is accessible and willing with his time. The players are generally good kids that give good quotes, and the fan base is large enough and passionate enough that writing a story on them will generate some clicks.

I just don’t believe that it’s possible to become one of the nation’s elite programs playing the style that they play.

VCU will continue to rack up regular season wins. They’ll continue to make their annual appearance in the NCAA tournament and should be a good bet to win a game, maybe two, when they get there.

But I don’t think we’ll see Havoc back in the Final Four.

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.