AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Havoc is ubiquitous. From Briante Weber-inspired Havoc headbands, to the back of VCU’s warm-ups, to billboards, to Spike Lee’s Twitter feed. It’s as hard to avoid the brand as it is to avoid Weber with a full head of steam. On the floor, it’s more of the same. As the Rams disassembled Akron Thursday night, CBS gushed over Shaka Smart’s trademark full-court press.
As much as we’ve talked Havoc on this blog, and it has been often, you’ll have to forgive me for doubling down now. Because if we’re not talking Havoc as it relates to the Rams’ NCAA Round of 32 contest with fourth-seeded Michigan Saturday, then I don’t know why we’re talking about it at all.
If there was ever a time to ponder the power of the Rams’ unique system, it’s now. On Saturday, Havoc may face its greatest challenge, the yin to its yang. It’ll be a game that seeks to find balance in the basketball universe. On one bench, there’s VCU, which leads the nation in defensive turnover percentage (28.8) against a Michigan squad that is the country’s best at protecting the ball. The Wolverines turn the ball over on just 14.4 percent of their possessions. Michigan’s season-high in turnovers is 14. The Rams have turned an opponent over at least 15 times in a game 28 times this season. They are 27-1 in those games.
So, forgive me if it’s time to drum up a few more Havoc hashtags this weekend. It’s kind of important.
On Friday, one local beat writer didn’t seem convinced. Were we all just making too much of a big deal out of all this, Havoc versus Michigan’s terrific guards, including NBA point guard-in-waiting Trey Burke?
“Not necessarily,” Burke said Friday. “That’s one of their tendencies that they’re really good at. So we’re obviously going to have to be ready for it.”
“I mean, it is what they do,” added Wolverines’ guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “I mean, that’s VCU’s whole mind-set, is to turn you over. They’re going to play that Havoc defense, and they’re going to do a great job of it.”
See? Of course this game isn’t entirely about VCU’s press and the Rams’ ability to turn over a team that values the basketball as much as your grandfather values his favorite armchair. Talk about an immovable force. VCU is flat-out going to have to continue to knock down shots. VCU would also do well to establish itself inside with Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham early, as it did effectively in Thursday’ 88-42 drubbing of Akron, which allowed Troy Daniels to fire away from beyond the 3-point arc with ease.
But really, the narrative of this game will most likely be the contrast of styles. If the Rams can speed Michigan up, force rushed jumpers and disrupt ball handlers with any sense of regularity, they’ll be in great shape. It’s been their formula all season.
As much as any game the Rams will play this year, this is going to come down to personnel. Smart credited John Beilein’s coaching, preparation, and Michigan’s spacing Friday, but conceded that it’s the guys between the lines that are going to decide the outcome.
“They’ve got great guards,” Smart said. “Trey Burke is a lot of people’s pick for National Player of the Year. I haven’t seen a guard better than him. But not only do they have Trey Burke, but they’ve got several other guards that are very, savvy, very poised with the basketball and they’re guys that don’t make a lot of mistakes and are hard to speed up.”
Michigan’s success or failure Saturday will begin with Burke, a 6-foot guard with quickness, poise and a textbook pull-up jumper. Burke
ranks second nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.3-to-1) and his 6.7 assists per game rank higher than all but 10 players in the country.
When Burke, who averages 18.8 points per game, isn’t breaking down teams, he’s got finishers like Hardaway (15.0 ppg), Nik Stauskas (11.4 ppg) and Glenn Robinson III (11.0 ppg) to lean on. The Wolverines rank second nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating and are 12th nationally in effective field goal percentage (54.6). Michigan shoots nearly 39 percent from three as a team.
While Michigan is sitting on a stockpile of potential pro talent and an All-America candidate, the Rams have the Wolverines’ unfamiliarity with Havoc and the tournament format on their side. From the final horn of VCU’s win Thursday to Saturday’s 12:15 tip-off, Michigan will have had about 36 hours to prepare for a system that is run by almost nobody else. Under Smart, VCU is 3-1 in the NCAA Tournament when playing on a single day of rest.
The Wolverines did beat Arkansas 80-67 on Dec. 8. The Razorbacks, coached by Mike Anderson, do press often, just not as much as the Rams. The Razorbacks forced 12 Michigan turnovers that night.
Beilein says he watched about 10 minutes of the Rams’ win Thursday in person before turning to film study.
“[It’s] a really talented team that plays a very different style than most teams that we see, and making that adjustment in one day is difficult,” he said. “At the same time, we’re thankful for this opportunity to be able to play, and we’re going to be as ready as we can be in the short turnaround.”
But nobody in the Big Ten – in which just two teams rank in the top 100 nationally in adjusted tempo – uses the full-court press and pushes pace like VCU.
“The challenge is just playing patient, really,” Burke said. “We haven’t played a lot of teams in the Big 10 that press the way that they do. We’ll, we haven’t played anyone. So we just have to play patient, play smart, and limit turnovers. They score off of turnovers really well…we just have to try not to allow them to force Havoc and just play patient, play at our own pace.”
For VCU, the game will come down to embracing the spirit of its brand. Havoc is as much a mindset as it is Xs and Os.
“We’ve just got to cause Havoc,” said VCU point guard Darius Theus, a likely candidate to guard Burke. “Be aggressive on the defensive end, try to speed them up. They do a real good job of taking care of the ball, so we just [need to] speed them up and just do Havoc. Then I think we can have pretty good success.”