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

(Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
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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.