AUBURN HILLS, MICH.: ‘Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’ might as well be the battle cry for Virginia Commonwealth.
The Rams’ pressuring, trap-filled defense, known as havoc, has wreaked chaos on many an opponent this season. Now the University of Akron gets to face that tonight in an NCAA Tournament game.
Coach Shaka Smart, a former Zips assistant, uses the system to great effect to force turnovers, allowing his team to generate easy points.
It’s a defense that has generated a significant disparity in the number of mistakes his team commits and the number they create. In the regular season, they’ve averaged 11.8 turnovers per game and forced almost 20 (19.9). It’s of little wonder his players responded with confidence amid the hubbub that surrounds the tournament site at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
“Just going out there and doing what we do each game, bringing our style of play, it’s pretty much going to fall into place,” said Briante Weber, a guard who ranks fourth in the nation in steals with 94.
Offense can come easily to basketball teams. Defense is more about possessing the will to play it. VCU’s Treveon Graham, the team’s leading scorer at 15.5 points per game, said that’s the difference in how they play.
“I think just the intensity that we bring on defense, that’s the most important thing. It’s getting stops and [it’s] the most important thing in our game because if you get stops, it translates on offense,” he said.
There remains a twist, however. Smart and Zips coach Keith Dambrot share not only a close friendship, but coaching philosophies as well.
Havoc is something the Zips have seen. They’ve practiced against it and utilized it during some games. So when the relentless pressure begins, the Zips won’t be unprepared.
“We go through that every day in practice,” freshman point guard Carmelo Betancourt said. “It’s probably going to be the same thing we run, just with different players, different faces.”
UA can’t count on anything specific to break the pressure nor can they count on using it themselves.
“It might be similar between us,” Rams guard Darius Theus said. “Both teams have to come out and show each team is different. They might have the same press and the same concept that we have, but we have to prove our concept and our pressure is better.”
Dambrot isn’t about to pretend the Zips are better at what VCU seemingly has perfected.
“We can’t simulate how they do it,” he said. “They’re the best in the country at it. We’re not anywhere near them, but at least we’ve practiced against them.”
In analyzing matchups, there is more than the Rams and their press. They have to contend with the Zips’ size advantage.
No VCU player is taller than 6-foot-9. That should give UA an advantage on the glass and in scoring at the rim. For the season, the Zips averaged 37.9 rebounds, including 13 offensively.
“We have to take advantage of the size difference inside,” forward-turned-backup point guard Nick Harney said. “Also, with our guards, outside of Melo [Betancourt], our guards are bigger than theirs, too. We definitely have to take advantage of that and get the ball in on the low block.”
The Zips will likely try to slow the game down, so the Rams have to contend with the size factor.
“We have to go inside. That’s our game. It’s simplified now with Alex [Abreu] gone,” Dambrot said.
“That’s our game. Pound it. Pound it. Pound it.”
And the key for the Zips might be minimizing turnovers. Their situation looked bleak when they lost guard Abreu after a suspension on a drug charge — but no longer.
“We took eight games where he played poorly — this was on a piece of paper — points, assists and turnovers, and they were all big wins. There were seven or eight games we won where he played poorly,” Dambrot said. “That means what? That you can overcome. You have to figure out how to do it.”
Harney has played confidently and looks comfortable playing the point, but more important is that he and his Zips teammates have confidence in Betancourt.
“Carmelo was ready before this adversity. It just wasn’t his time yet,” Harney said. “But now his time is sped up … and he’s ready. We have all the confidence in the world.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.