BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Watch out, folks. Havoc is humming. VCU’s signature full court pressure is starting to squeeze opponents with the strength of a boa constrictor, and the results are getting more impressive with each passing game.
Saturday night, Boston College felt the Rams tighten their grip until all the life had been choked out of the Eagles’ previously notable offense. VCU beat Boston College 69-50 Saturday at Barclays Center, but it wasn’t even that close. If not for a handful of meaningless buckets in the waning moments, it would have looked much worse. Even so, it was BC’s lowest offensive output in nearly a year. For a while, it looked like the Eagles might not reach 40 points, let alone 50.
When the wreckage was cleared away, all Boston College Coach Steve Donohue could do was shake his head at a season-high 23 turnovers, a season-low three 3-pointers and 39 percent (17-of-44) shooting overall. Boston College scored just 17 points in the first half and finished the game 25 points under its season average. During one particular stretch, BC recorded one field goal in 14 minutes. The Eagles entered the game ranked 63rd nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency rating – better than nearly 300 other Division I teams – and left with a duffel bag full of questions.
The victory was VCU’s program-record third over an ACC team this year (in four opportunities). It’s notable that the Rams beat three ACC teams this year, but perhaps even more so that in none of those three (Virginia, Virginia Tech and Boston College), reached 60 points.
Havoc, like any facet of basketball, needs to be managed carefully. Any lapse in focus, a low-energy night, a bad week of practice, can zap its effectiveness. VCU has continued to turn teams over for essentially this entire season, but there were times when Havoc just wasn’t the same, when teams hurt the Rams in the back end of the press or shot the lights out. It’s not that it was ever broken, but there’s a big difference between Havoc at optimal levels and everything else. You could see the difference is VCU’s losses to Florida State and Georgetown, when the Rams gave up 80-plus points.
But whatever ailed the Rams back then, it doesn’t appear to be hurting their defense now. Of late, VCU has been a scary defensive team. Consider that VCU shot an abysmal 26 percent (8-of-28) in the first half Saturday, and led the game by five.
VCU’s recent ability to ramp up Havoc is no happy accident. The Rams have made it their focal point in practice and are starting to reap the benefits.
“I really just think we’ve been practicing, really practicing with the values defensively and just [doing] the little things,” said senior Rob Brandenberg, who finished with 13 points, five rebounds and a steal Saturday. “We’re really putting emphasis on things like ball pressure, being in the right place at the right time, just everything that makes Havoc work. We kind of went away from that after losing to Northern Iowa, so we’re just going back to the drawing board and really just focusing in and trying to emphasize those things.”
For Smart, it isn’t just VCU’s terrific pressure that he’s enjoyed of late. It’s that the Rams’ terrific pressure is a sign of progress.
“I think our team has gotten better,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said. “The biggest focus is, we want to improve from the start of the season with each game. It started in practice. Sometimes with teams, particularly teams that are figuring out their roles, you get better in practice, and you don’t necessarily see immediate results in the game. But I think our guys, our older guys, have led the way by making our practices over the past month or so more competitive, holding each other more accountable, working on some of the defensive details, and it shows.”
In VCU’s last three games, double-digit victories over Wofford, Virginia Tech and Boston College, opponents averaged 53.0 points, 23.7 turnovers and shot 35 percent (51-of-144) from the field. Okay, so Virginia Tech and Boston College (4-9) aren’t Duke or Syracuse, but they’re still capable ACC foes with offenses that had actually been pretty productive, and VCU made them look helpless.
There have been few stretches during Smart’s tenure where the Rams have had more success on the defensive end. VCU’s stretch of three straight games of holding an opponent under 60 points marks just the fourth time under Smart they’ve put together at least three sub-60 performances in a row.
“I think everybody’s starting to buy in and everybody’s getting better,” Brandenberg said. “Historically, since I’ve been here, we’ve gotten better over the course of the season. So we didn’t panic, but we’ve just got to continue to get better. I still think we’ve got a bit more work to do.”
If Brandenberg thinks the Rams can defend better than in their last three games, more power to him. We’ll take him at his word and look forward to whatever that next level of Havoc could be. But until then, we’ll all have to settle for some of the best defense the Rams have played in the last five years.