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.”

source:
AP Photo

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.