When Massachusetts men’s basketball point guard Chaz Williams thinks about what the pace of the game will be like during Thursday night’s road contest at Virginia Commonwealth, he can’t help but bring it all back to, of all things, video games.
“The game will be pretty fast,” Williams said. “I was actually telling Maxie (Esho) it would be like a (NBA) 2K game on a speed of 100, just both teams running fast and fast nonstop.”
It seems silly, but Williams may not be too far off base with his theory.
Thursday night’s game between the Minutemen (16-6, 6-3 Atlantic 10 Conference) and Rams (19-5, 7-2 A-10) inside what is expected to be a very loud Siegel Center will pit the two highest scoring offenses in the conference and two teams that live off of pushing the gas pedal and increasing tempo.
“It’ll be interesting to see how the styles fit together,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said in his A-10 conference call earlier this week. “Not extremely similar, a little different just in the nuts and bolts of how we do what we do, but they’re obviously very effective in their style and we are too.”
For the Rams, Smart might be selling his team a bit short by using the word “effective.”
Smart, now in his fourth year at the helm of VCU, has molded his team into one that has become known for hounding its opponents for 40 minutes per night with defensive pressure and intensity.
The statistical results were suspect in Smart’s first two seasons as coach despite the fact that the Rams made a surprising Cinderella run through the NCAA Tournament and into the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2011.
But the blueprint has always been the same. Last season, VCU followed up its stunning run by amping up the pressure even more, and led the country in steals per game (10.68) on its way back to the Big Dance.
This season, the Rams are up to their old tricks. They lead the nation again in steals per game by a fair margin at 11.96 per game, which has helped them become the highest scoring offense in their first season as a member of the A-10 at 77.5 points per game. The Minutemen are second at 72.6 per game.
It’s all come as a result of a style that has been appropriately named as “havoc,” something UMass coach Derek Kellogg is very familiar of.
In fact, when Kellogg decided to abandon the Minutemen’s dribble-drive offensive scheme and adopt a more up-tempo style before last season, the Rams were one of his top inspirations.
“I liked the way that VCU had an identity, the havoc defense,” Kellogg said. “Everybody knows, mention VCU and that’s how they play.”
More or less, Thursday night’s showdown will pit one team that has mastered its own blueprint for success and one that is still in that process. Still, Kellogg has been pleased with the results he’s seen with his team so far.
“I think the UMass brand at least has an identity now and that’s what I was looking for,” Kellogg said. “I think when you go around the country now and at least say UMass, UMass brand, UMass basketball, people have a certain indication of how we play for 40 minutes, and I think over the last month, it’s come back to the way it should look.”
That was certainly true in UMass’ recent 80-62 beatdown of Saint Joseph’s on Saturday night, when the Minutemen rode their defensive pressure to a season-high 10 dunks in the rout – a sight that Kellogg envisioned when he made the decision to change his team’s style.
To replicate that success Thursday night will likely require a more concerted effort, especially in an arena that can get as loud as a crowd at the Siegel Center that feeds off its team’s style of play.
Kellogg said that while he’s focused on game planning around VCU’s “havoc,” he also wants to make sure the Rams are adapting to the way the Minutemen play.
“I think VCU wants you to get into where you’re worrying about the 25 things that they do,” Kellogg said. “Yeah, we want to make sure we understand what they do, but we do some pretty good things too that we want to make sure they’re aware of.”
Smart simplified the concept even more.
“We would prefer the game to be played our way, and I think our way can be similar to UMass, so it will probably be that way Thursday, but you still have to go out there and make more plays than the other team,” he said.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.