(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.

No. 23 Furman tops Charleston Southern 77-69, stays unbeaten

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GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — No. 23 Furman took another step in its remarkable early-season journey, one coach Bob Richey expects will benefit his team the rest of the way.

The perfect Paladins (11-0) used a late run to pull away from Charleston Southern for a 77-69 victory Tuesday night in their first-ever home game as a Top 25 team.

Richey felt the jitters of his young team before the game, the desire to show the home crowd their rise was legitimate.

“The fear of if we lose, does all this go away,” Richey said. “And I think that’s normal for a young player — ‘Man, we want to keep this going.'”

Noah Gurley scored 17 points, and Alex Hunter and Andrew Brown had 16 points apiece to lead Furman in a game where leading scorer Jordan Lyons had zero points.

“We’ve got to continue to keep our pulse on these players,” Richey said. “We’ve got to continue to help them out.”

So far, so good.

The Paladins have been one of college basketball’s biggest surprises with their school-record run to start the season — a stretch that included defeating defending national champs Villanova and a second Final Four team from last year in Loyola-Chicago.

It took a late charge to break away from the Buccaneers (4-5).

Charleston Southern trailed 54-52 on Dontrell Shuler’s layup with less than 10 minutes left. After that, the Paladins went on a 14-4 run. Tre Clark had four points during the surge and when Gurley nailed a 3-pointer with 5:51 to go, Furman was up 68-56.

Charleston Southern could not respond and college basketball’s feel-good story of the season remained on track.

Lyons, averaging 20.2 points a game, missed all seven of his shots.

Matt Rafferty had 14 points and 14 rebounds for Furman.

“We’ve got to stay even-keeled,” Hunter said. “That’s something we’ve been practicing every day.”

Deontaye Buskey and Duncan LeXander had 13 points each for Charleston Southern.

Buccaneers coach Barclay Radebaugh said his team made too many mistakes to hang in at the end.

“You can’t do that against a team like Furman,” he said.

Furman, which joined the AP Top 25 last week for the first time in school history, had to wait another week — and make it through road wins at Elon and South Carolina Upstate — before it could celebrate its achievement on its home court. And it looked like the Paladins would have plenty to cheer about after they used a 17-8 run midway through the opening period to build a 26-18 lead.

But Furman went cold after that, missing seven straight shots as the Buccaneers of the Big South Conference tightened things up.

BIG PICTURE

Charleston Southern: The Buccaneers are nearing the end of a brutal opening stretch with seven of their first 11 games on the road. Those have included losses at Florida, Middle Tennessee and Marquette. Charleston Southern’s run ends with games at North Florida and Clemson in the next week. Radebaugh hopes the time away from home toughens the Bucs for Big South play.

Furman: The Paladins looked edgy in their first home appearance as a ranked team. They looked ready to take charge with a 51-42 lead before helping Charleston Southern’s comeback with four straight turnovers. Furman probably won’t win many games where Lyons struggles as he did against the Bucs.

STREAKING PALADINS

Furman is off to its most consecutive wins since winning 11 in a row in 1979. That’s back when the Paladins were one of the Palmetto State’s most successful teams, going to six NCAA Tournaments between 1971 and 1980. Furman has not played in the tournament since then.

RICHEY’S START

Richey was grateful to Radebaugh, who hired Richey as a 23-year-old and gradually gave him control of the Bucs’ offense. “Without Barclay, I wouldn’t be here today,” Richey said.

UP NEXT

Charleston Southern is at North Florida on Saturday.

Furman finishes a two-game homestand by hosting UNC Wilmington on Saturday.

Penn ends No. 17 Villanova’s 25-game Big 5 winning streak with 78-75 victory

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Villanova’s 25-game Big 5 winning streak is over.

The 17th-ranked Wildcats fell to Penn, 78-75, at the Palestra on Tuesday to see its undefeated run among its Philadelphia counterparts come to an end after six years.

It’s also an end to the six-game winning streak coach Jay Wright’s team has enjoyed since losing back-to-back games to Michigan and Furman last month.

Issues persisted on the defensive end for the Wildcats as they fell on a night they shot 50 percent from the floor and 34.6 percent from 3-point range. The Quakers bested that by converting 51.1 percent of their shots overall and 43.8 percent of their 16 attempts from distance.

Villanova had put some distance between itself and the shellacking it took courtesy of Michigan and the OT lost to Furman, but it continues to be clear that while still a top-25 caliber team, Wright’s squad this year looks to be well short of the teams that celebrated national championships in 2016 and 2018. Eric Paschall was expected to step into the void from losing so many players to the NBA off last year’s title-winner, but he took just five shots against Penn and has been generally inconsistent all season. Five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly can’t even got on the floor. That leaves Collin Gillespie and Phil Booth, who combined for 39 points Tuesday, carrying a bigger burden than would be ideal.

The Wildcats are likely ultimately going to be fine – they lost to a good team Tuesday – but unless they can get more from especially Paschall it’s hard to see them elevating themselves to a Final Four contender.

That’s the weight of expectation after two titles in three years.

We knew the Big East championship wasn’t going to be Villanova’s to simply waltz to, but the top-half of the league continues to look incredibly tightly grouped together without mich separation.

Penn, meanwhile, looks a real threat in the Ivy, as was evident in the Quakers’ win over Miami last week. The win over Villanova only solidifies their status.

AJ Brodeur and Antonio Woods both scored 16 points against the ‘Cats as Penn led by as many as 12 points on the night, but still had to survive a Booth attempt from 3 at the buzzer to finally end Villanova’s supremacy over Big 5 hoops.

Iowa State could get Lindell Wigginton and Solomon Young back this weekend

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It’s been sort of a bizarre start to the season for Iowa State. For starters, the Cyclones enter the season not coming off an NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 2011 after a 14-18 campaign last season snapped a program-record six-straight tourney streak. Coach Steve Prohm then suspended two players, including preseason all-Big 12 honorable mention center Cameron Lard, for the month of November for rules violations. The Cyclones also lost starting big man Solomon Young to a groin injury and then star guard Lindell Wigginton to a sprained foot.

Despite all that, Iowa State started the season 7-1 (including two wins at the Maui Invitational) before a loss at rival Iowa last week.

Now with an 8-2 record and having not only survived November but largely thrived with a reduced roster, the Cyclones are nearing full strength.

Wigginton, who averaged 17 points and shot 40 percent from 3 as a freshman, and Young, a two-year starter, could return as soon as Saturday and almost assuredly before the Cyclones’ Big 12 opener against Oklahoma State on Jan. 2.

“It’s where we thought it would be the whole time,” Prohm said of the duo’s timeline Monday, according to the Ames Tribune. “When we do halfcourt live segments Wednesday, if everything stays status quo the way it is right now, they’ll be able to go in the halfcourt.

“Not up and down, but they’ll go live contact in the halfcourt, and then evaluate them from there. Whether they suit up or not on Saturday, I couldn’t give you an answer on that right now.”

Prohm said both players could be in uniform against Drake on Saturday, but would not necessarily be available for big minutes, if at all. Wigginton, who went through the NBA pre-draft process last spring before announcing his return the day of the NCAA deadline, is expected to nearly immediately return to a major role.

Young, though, will be an interesting case. The Cyclones’ frontcourt is a crowded one with Prohm seemingly committed to playing four guards extensively and current starter Michael Jacobson, a Nebraska transfer, averaging a surprising 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 62.4 percent from the floor. With Jacobson, Lard and Young all soon available, Prohm will have a juggling act for minutes or reconfigure his lineup to play big, with the former seeming more likely than the latter.

Mark Few: NCAA prez Mark Emmert ‘needs to step up and be a leader and make some quicker decisions’

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Count Mark Few as one looking for the NCAA to shorten its timeline when it comes to potential discipline for schools ensnared by the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball.

The Gonzaga coach is also calling out NCAA president Mark Emmert by name in his plea to speed things along and make teams who may have violated NCAA rules accountable.

“I’m disappointed. I don’t think this is something the NCAA needs to take their time on,” Few said, according to Yahoo Sports. “There’s teams out here who are competing for Final Fours and national championships and they don’t need to stall this thing out.

“They need to make decisions and roll with it. I think that’s on Emmert. Emmert needs to step up and be a leader and make some quicker decisions.”

Emmert said last week that schools who were implicated by the FBI’s investigation, including by information that was made public in October’s court proceedings that involved three guilty verdicts, would not face potential punishment until after this season with the NCAA investigation extending beyond the Final Four.

New NCAA rules allow it to use testimony and evidence presented in those trials, but how the NCAA will apply those rules – will it simply accept anything mentioned under oath? – remains unclear. The NCAA, though, has committed to handle things methodically, as it so often does to the frustration of many a coach. It’s not exactly surprising, though, that the NCAA is in no hurry to drop sanctions on prominent schools – programs like Kansas, Auburn, Creighton, LSU, Louisville and Miami – in the middle of a season. Such a move would dominate discussion of the sport and upend seasons in an unprecedented manner. Intraseason discipline, especially something like a postseason ban, against some of the country’s top programs would be almost guaranteed to invite ugly legal challenges.

It’s not exactly a courageous rationale, but it is pragmatic. It also is the least likely to affect the bottom line, which is usually the best spot to place your bet when trying to determine the NCAA’s course of action.

Providence guard to miss at least a month with foot injury

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Rough news for Providence on Tuesday morning, as the school announced that freshman guard A.J. Reeves will miss the next four-to-six weeks with an unspecified foot injury.

Reeves, a native of Roxbury, Ma., has averaged 14.2 points this season while shooting 45 percent from three. He’s been the best freshman in the Big East and one of the best weapons for a talented Friar team that has yet to truly figure themselves out.

“It’s unfortunate that A.J. has to go through this as he has been having a very productive start to his college career,” head coach Ed Cooley said. “However, he is a great person and will use this time to get better and he will continue to support the team.”