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December 28, 2016

Minutemen prepared to deal with “Havoc” defense

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

There’s no sleight of hand when it comes to the Virginia Commonwealth men’s basketball team. It has one overarching philosophy: to wreak “Havoc” on opponents.

From the opening tip off to the final whistle, VCU will suffocate its opponents on defense. Coach Shaka Smart’s squad comes in waves, playing as many as 10 players in his rotation to present an aggressive full-court press designed to frustrate and confuse opponents. The Rams rarely deviate from their “Havoc” style of play.

It’s a way of life, a style that hasn’t changed much since Smart took control of VCU in 2009. Smart has implemented a vicious style of defending and stuck with it, molding his roster to fit his intense brand of basketball.

Opponents know what’s coming when they inbound the ball, but the question is whether it can be stopped—something Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg continues to deliberate over in advance of Friday’s matchup at Mullins Center.

“Yeah, you definitely know what they’re doing,” Kellogg said. “But can you prepare and be ready for it? (That’s) really the question.”

The Rams press in a variety of different ways predicated around trapping the ball handler in the backcourt. VCU relies on quick, shifty guards to “heat up the ball” in man-to-man defense. The goal is to force the primary guard into unorthodox and uncomfortable situations. Once this is achieved, another player rushes the ball and quickly traps. The point is to force opponents into turnover-frequent areas, such as the corners or sidelines, and generate easy baskets off turnovers.

The result? Through 26 games, the Rams force 19.2 turnovers per game and have 295 steals as a team. They’ve benefited on the offensive end as well, scoring 76.5 points per game.

Junior guard Briante Weber currently holds the school record for career steals with 272, breaking the previous record of 259 against Richmond on Feb. 2. And when Weber isn’t attacking in man-to-man situations, VCU uses a combination of trapping zones to change up the look.

“We all know that they press for 40 minutes and they try to trap and make the game get fast and sped up,” Kellogg said.

“So the question as a team and as a staff is: How fast do you want to let it go? You can run up and down as fast as you want all game long or, at some point, do you want to try and control tempo to a certain point? And I think that’s a delicate balance,” he added.

UMass faced the Rams twice last season, and faced issues controlling the tempo in both meetings.

The Minutemen initially traveled to VCU on Feb. 14 last year and held a 42-37 lead at halftime. But UMass imploded in the second half and was outscored 49-26, leading to an 86-68 loss. The Minutemen committed 24 turnovers and allowed 28 points off those turnovers.

Both teams met again in the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals, where the Rams won 71-62 and ended UMass’ season. The Minutemen again committed 24 turnovers and assisted on just six made field goals.

Will UMass do anything differently this time around? When asked, point guard Chaz Williams was adamant that the only way to overcome the Havoc defense is to stick to the script.

“Just play your game,” Williams said with a knowing glance. “Havoc defense is out there to create havoc and cause havoc, and if you’re not playing your game, that’s what it’s going to do.”

The Minutemen play their own recognizable version of high-octane basketball, albeit more in transition. Friday’s matchup promises to be a clash of styles, with the victor likely playing their brand of basketball in a more efficient manner than their opponent.

“They stay with (the Havoc), that’s their philosophy and they continue to get better and better because they do it a repeated amount of times,” Kellogg said.

“Really, being smart and playing intelligent basketball is one way you can counter (VCU’s) athleticism and their speed and their ability to get in the open floor.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

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