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.

Shaka Smart, Derek Kellogg speak to the strength of the Atlantic 10

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AMHERST, Mass. – Following Friday night’s loss to UMass, VCU head coach Shaka Smart entered the room for his postgame press conference, firing off a question before even taking his seat at the table.

“Is this the same room where John Chaney said, ‘I’ll kill you’?,” he asked, referring to the former Temple coach’s confrontation with then-UMass head coach John Calipari which happened just over 20 years ago.

“You won’t hear that from me,” he then assured the room.

In his two-year tenure in the Atlantic 10, Smart has immersed himself in the history of the conference … both good and bad, apparently.

The Chaney-Calipari incident ranks high among the conference’s list of infamous moments, but Friday night’s showdown between VCU’s Havoc and UMass’ P.A.I.N. — Pressure, Agitate, Interrupt, Neutralize — is another reminder of how impressive the talent in the Atlantic 10 is. Friday night’s slate of games was particularly low, but a fast-paced 40-minute thriller between the Rams and Minutemen directed the national audience to the sold out Mullins Center for the evening.

“Our conference is still undervalued,” Smart said. “I don’t think people realized the gauntlet that you have to go through in this league. I guess Saint Louis, on paper the win-loss record, they are making it look easy, but if you look closer at some of their games, some of them have been very close. And then for the rest of us, we’ve been battling it out.”

The Billikens are winners of 19 in a row, with their last loss to the nation’s only remaining unbeaten, Wichita State. Last March, Saint Louis was one of five Atlantic 10 teams that won at least one game in the NCAA tournament. The win over VCU almost assures UMass its first NCAA tourney bid since 1998. The Minutemen could be one of four, potentially five bids in this year’s field from the A10.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but there is a lack of sophistication out there right now as it relates to the Atlantic 10,” Smart added. “There are fill-in-the-blank high-major programs and they carry a weight because of their name, first and foremost. But the reality is if you look closer and you compare them to some of the teams in our league, I think our league shapes out pretty well. Again I’m not calling out anyone individually.”

In the RPI Top 100, nine teams — Saint Louis, St. Joseph’s, UMass, VCU, Richmond, George Washington, Dayton and St. Bonaventure — all crack the list.

“I think it just continues with the A10, I think it’s stood the test of time for one reason or another,” Kellogg said, who played in the A10 from 1991-1995 under Calipari. “The proof is really right there in the numbers. That’s what it says.”

Selection Sunday is less than a month away. Two of the Atlantic 10’s bids from a season ago — Butler and Temple — are gone. St. Joseph’s doesn’t have the best out of conference resume while Richmond is without Cedrick Lindsay and Derrick Williams for the remainder of the season. The A10 has its share of bubble teams while at-large bids should be extended to multiple teams within the conference.

Teams like Saint Louis, ranked No. 10 in the AP poll, may not be in the discussion among the nation’s contenders, and the league doesn’t have the national attention it may deserve, but Friday night was a reminder of what sort of Havoc, or P.A.I.N. A10 teams like VCU and UMass can inflict on the NCAA tournament field.

The conference did account for seven wins in the 2013 NCAA Tournament after all.

“It was a pretty exciting game, a well-played game, a phenomenal crowd,” Smart said. “We just have to continue pushing forward with that and gaining respect as a league.”

VCU shows off new uniforms in photo shoot (VCU)

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VCU Athletics

VCU’s basketball program will be getting new uniforms this season. The changes are subtle, but there is one thing that I would have done differently were I the one making the decisions.

Why isn’t ‘Havoc’ written on the jerseys somewhere? More than anything, that’s the word that is associated with VCU’s program. It’s written on every sign in and around the Siegel Center. It’s written on the seats on one side of the courts. It’s the program’s identity.

Wouldn’t it have been awesome to get that on the uniform somewhere?

VCU Athletics
VCU Athletics