An inside look into VCU's unmatched Havoc defense
A five-part primer on the best press in the land ...
I. Easier Said Than Broken
When I was in Richmond reporting the VCU story that appears in Sports Illustrated, the Rams were hosting their first-ever Atlantic 10 game, against Dayton. It wasn't a guaranteed showcase for Havoc, VCU's press-after-every-make (and dead ball) defense, because Flyers' senior point guard Kevin Dillard seemed like a dude who could deal with pressure. He was coming off a 27-point, 10 assist, two-turnover showing against UAB. He had 24 assists against just eight turnovers in his previous three games.
And Dillard believed in his ability to handle Havoc. In a game preview story in the Dayton Daily News, he said of VCU's press, "We've just got to take care of the ball. That doesn't scare me. Being at this level, you've seen just about every press you can play against. We've just got to stay sharp, communicate and attack."
That quote was buried in the 11th and 12th paragraphs of the story, and it didn't earn any additional attention, inspiring a grand total of zero posts in the blogosphere. But outside of the Rams' locker room, where a flatscreen TV played a loop of their Dayton personnel/scouting report, I saw a still frame with Dillard's headshot on it pop up, and there were his words again: "That doesn't scare me ..."
The Rams were encouraged to enlighten Dillard to the fact that Havoc is not your typical, only mildly annoying press. They did so in a number of ways, one of which is captured in the following GIF, where Dillard has the ball, VCU sophomore Briante Weber, the national leader in steal percentage, is guarding him in the backcourt, and fellow sophomore Treveon Graham is the converging trapper:
Dayton committed a season-high 26 turnovers that night, and Dillard had a season-high seven of them against just one assist. With around eight minutes left in the second half, he was leaning forward and tugging on his shorts, which is the universal basketball sign for fatigue. Rams opponents often do this, but the Rams rarely do -- "We have rules against it: Can't grab your shorts, can't touch your knees, even in practice," says assistant coach (and press director) Will Wade. VCU won that game 74-62, is currently tied for first place in the A-10, and leads in the nation in turnovers-forced percentage at 29.3.
II. Heating Up The Ball
VCU uses a 1-2-1-1 zone press (called "diamond" because the front four players form that shape) about a third of the time, with a number of tweaks and hybrid options, but its go-to look is a trapping man-to-man called "double-fist." The double-fist only works if you have quick guards who can, in Rams parlance, "heat up the ball" in a one-on-one situation. This means getting the ballhandler out of control and blinding him from the impending trap, which comes from a secondary defender who's lurking near halfcourt.
"If you watch tape with me," VCU coach Shaka Smart said after the Dayton game, "the possessions where we heat up the ball, something good happens. And the possessions where we don't, where we run and try to trap a guy who's not under pressure? Something bad tends to happen -- an open three, an easy shot."
Here is an example of Weber napalming Belmont's Reece Chamberlain, from December. Note the impeccable timing of Juvonte Reddic's trap: He pounces at the instant Chamberlain starts looking down.
Belmont committed a season-high 24 turnovers in that game, which it lost 75-65. Rick Byrd, who's been coaching the Bruins for 27 years and had considerable success pressing two seasons ago, told me, "VCU's press is as good as I've ever faced in coaching. I don't care what you try to do -- they're still going to speed you up and make guys uncomfortable. There was a stretch at the end of the first half where they just made us look silly."
The previous GIF, as well as the next one, both came from that silly stretch. What typically happens during a man-to-man press break is, once the point guard gets the ball, every other offensive player clears out upcourt, in hopes of pulling all the potential trappers out of the picture. If you leave helpers back to take stress off the ballhandler, then you run the risk of additional VCU payers jumping him -- such as in this case, where Chamberlain evades the initial trap, but gets attacked by a surprise third Ram, Rob Brandenberg, who forces an errant pass:
III. Location, Location
The three elements of a good trap, according to Smart, are the ballhandler's level of control (or lack thereof), the element of surprise, and the location. The sideline is better than the middle of the floor; and near the sideline, just across halfcourt, is perfect. That's an area of high turnover volume, because the ballhandler is limited to only 90 degrees of passing space.
Below is a GIF from VCU's 70-64 win at Rhode Island on Jan. 30, in which URI point guard Xavier Munford and forward Nikola Malesevic are running a two-man break against the double fist. As Brandenberg pushes Munford toward the coffin corner, Graham makes a long sprint from Munford's blind spot:
Munford panics and throws the ball away. He was out of control, he was blinded by his own turn, and he was stuck in the coffin corner: for VCU, this was a perfect trap. It required a mad scramble, but that's S.O.P. for Havoc, and this ceaseless commotion is what makes VCU games worth watching. Even at halftime at the Siegel Center, they do not hold a stagnant shooting contest; they strap pedometers on two fans and have them run around in circles for 60 seconds. He who gets in the most steps, wins.
IV. The Diamond
VCU's diamond press is taken from Smart's old boss at Clemson, Oliver Purnell, who still uses it often in his new gig at DePaul. It works best when the Rams play small, with an athletic four-man -- particularly Graham -- as the "madman" guarding the inbounder, and then the three guards making up the other points of the diamond.
The Rams try to force the inbounds pass to the corner, then immediately trap the ballhandler, while the back portion of the diamond moves into pass-intercept position. In this GIF, Rhode Island uses the most common method of diamond-breaking -- a quick pass back to the inbounder -- and then proceeds to work the ball upcourt without excessively dribbling.
Because VCU has the personnel to create problems in 1-on-1 situations, it more often goes with the double fist. Its guards prefer to heat up the ball.
V. Let Slip The Dogs
The Rams' coaching staff refers to ball-combusting guards Darius Theus, Brandenberg and Weber as "Wild Dogs" due to their relentless attack mentality. And while the Wild Dogs are next-to-impossible to prepare for -- before last year's NCAA tournament game against VCU, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall had his team practice against a six-man press, but still lost -- they were willing to provide a self-scouting report. Like most of their steals in the press, it was a collaborative effort.
They agree that Weber is the best steal-creator. (As well they should, since he's leading the nation in steal percentage for a second straight season.)
Says Theus: "Bri can pressure the ball better than anybody, and his arms are so long that if you try a crossover in front of him, his hands are gonna be right there."
Brandenburg: "Bri's anticipation skills are second to none, so with him, he can be more aggressive and go for steals."
They agree that Theus is the soundest defender, and the guy they'd call on to get one stop in a crunch-time situation.
Weber: "Darius' style isn't about stealing it. It's pressure without reaching or lunging. It's disciplined, beat you to a spot, make you do something you can't do, and then you end up just giving him the ball."
They agree that Brandenberg can fly.
Weber: "Rob's the roadrunner. He'll beat you to a spot before you think about going there."
They do not believe that any team pressures like they do. Given that only one team in the past decade has posted a higher turnover percentage than the Rams' current 29.3 -- and that was Air Force in 2005, at 29.5 -- this is a reasonable claim.
Weber: "I don't see anybody matching us. Even when I watch Louisville" -- the No. 2 team in turnover percentage this season -- "it's a press but it's kind of laid-back, maybe 80 or 88 feet rather than 94 feet. We press full-court the whole 40 minutes; sometimes they press just a little bit and then fall back into a zone."
And they do not believe that Smart will call off the dogs.
Theus: "Maybe if we were up 30 with two minutes left, he would stop pressing."
Weber: "But it would still be 'fist' -- full-court man, just no trap. I don't think he would say, 'Stop putting pressure on the ball.' I've never heard him say that."