DAYTON, Ohio – Havoc is coming to town.
It is Tuesday afternoon, and the Dayton Flyers are bracing for a visit from the most relentless gang of thieves in college basketball. VCU leads the nation in steals, turnovers forced and – probably – opposing guards frazzled. A defense so renowned, it comes with its own nickname.
Earlier this season, coach Shaka Smart allowed a camera into the locker room to catch his final pre-game words.“If you’re ready to be the aggressor, stand up,” he said to his team.
Fifteen Rams rose to their feet.
“That’s what I thought,” Smart said. And off they all went, to torment another offense.
Anyone about to play VCU understands all this.
“I don’t think anybody prides themselves right now in college basketball more with their full court pressure than VCU,” Dayton coach Archie Miller is saying before practice.
His Flyers made a stern upset bid last season at VCU, but eventually came undone with 26 turnovers, 15 of them Rams’ steals.
“They pride themselves on breaking you down,” Miller said. “They did. They broke us down.”
So what’s a team to do with Havoc dead ahead? Many teams are having to answer that question these days – VCU is averaging 12 steals and 20 turnovers forced a game – so it seemed a good week to see how one team prepared, and how it worked out.
Miller designs practice to confound his players, hurry them, corner them, make them uncomfortable. Just like Wednesday night will be.
“You have seven guys out there [pressing] versus five. You’re running around, just making things chaotic,” he said “You have to do it in full court, you have to do it in half court, you’ve got to surprise guys out of timeouts. You have to set your guys up for the randomness of how they play.”
Khari Price is the point guard who will go against all that.
“They hassle you a lot. Basically, the biggest thing is to make good decisions under pressure,” he says. “After all is said and done, it’s still five on five. Most times, there’s one guy guarding you. As a Division I athlete, you should be able to handle the pressure.”
Twenty-six hours later . . .
The VCU Rams take the floor with that word “Havoc” on the back of their warmups, announcing their intention.
Seventy-one seconds into the game is the first theft, when national steals leader Briante Weber pokes the ball away from Price. By halftime, Dayton has 12 turnovers and trails 36-27.
Havoc is not in full force the second half, as the Flyers go the first nine minutes without a turnover. Or is it?
Sometimes, the perpetual energy drain against the pressure is more deadly than a number on a stat sheet. Dayton’s first turnover of the half comes at 11:01, and four more follow in the next 4 ½ minutes, as the Rams open up a 20-point lead and breeze to an 80-66 win to go 15-4.
Final count: Eighteen Dayton turnovers (three for Price), six VCU steals (three for Weber). A gentle night, numerically speaking, for Havoc. But an impressive win on the road.
“A 7 or 8,” Smart rates it afterward, standing outside his locker room. “Dayton did a pretty good job of keeping the ball in the middle of the floor against our press, so we didn’t get as many traps as we normally do.”
But the Rams had a 28-7 edge in points off turnovers, and Smart mentions how hard they made the Flyers work to get the ball up the floor.
Miller would say later of VCU how “every guy that comes in has an attacking mindset. I think they wear you down. It’s not like they turn you over on every press. They get you playing at a speed that you’re not comfortable with.”
All in a Havoc night’s work.
“That’s us. That’s the one word we live by, that’s the one word we’re going to die by,” Weber said.
“You can see if the other coach is frustrated, then I know the players are frustrated. When we push it, they don’t have time to think as fast as we do, because we practice that way.”
And this game?
“I don’t think we got many turnovers in the full court, but from the half court, we really locked down. They were thinking about the full court. They didn’t think we could guard them in the half court, but we showed them tonight we can guard on the half court as well.”
That is particular point of emphasis to Smart, who does not consider his team built solely on thievery, no matter how well the Rams do it.
“Believe it or not, our goal is not to steal the ball. Our goal is to stop the other team from scoring,” he says. “There’s some people that have said that’s all we do; we try to force turnovers. But if you watch closely, when we’re playing well, we’re able to force some turnovers but we’re also able to keep teams from scoring.”
Another VCU hallmark this night: Nine Rams play a least 10 minutes. They attack in waves, and they don’t let up, and that is the foundation on which one word stands.
“It helps give us an identity. It’s a part of who we are,” Smart said. “Our guys know when they come to VCU what they’re getting themselves into, the way we’re going to practice and the way we’re going to play. But that’s not by itself going to win the game. You still have to compete and you still have to go out there and play good offense.”
In his session with the media, Miller lauds both VCU’s talent and Smart’s ability to coax the most from it.
“It’s a gift to get teams to play hard,” he says. “These guys play hard and they have a purpose.”
Sure, they do. It’s written on the back of their warmups.
Miller’s bottom line: “They overwhelmed us from about the 12-minute mark down to the end. Our coaches and players and everybody knew it.”
Havoc had come and gone from another town.