One of the most exciting matchups in the 2013 NCAA tournament will be fifth-seeded VCU vs. fourth-seeded Michigan. Turnovers will be the determining factor in this round of 32 tilt at the Palace of Auburn Hills, and forcing opponents into mistakes is exactly what the Rams' Havoc defense is designed to do.
When Shaka Smart took over as VCU's head coach in 2009 he did not mince words about his defensive strategy.
"On the basketball court, we are going to employ the most exciting style of play," Smart told reporters. "We are going to wreak havoc on our opponents' psyche and their plan of attack."
Havoc is not just a code name for Smart's full-court press, though. It is how VCU defines itself as a program, what it pitches to recruits and is the philosophy Smart has built the program around for the past four years.
The Rams are going to pressure their opponents for 40 minutes. Not only does VCU press after every single made basket, or dead ball at the far end of the floor, it attempts to "heat up the ball" for the entire game.
Heating up the ball is essentially applying direct pressure to the dribbler. The Rams aim to constantly keep opposing ball-handlers under duress, which will put a great amount of emphasis on decision-making for sophomore point guard Trey Burke and Co. on Saturday.
Below is a Havoc highlight reel put together by VCU's basketball officials:
One thing that stands out in the various clips is how active every one of the Rams' hands are at all times. Each VCU defender swats and swipes at the ball whenever he can do it without fouling.
The results of Havoc have been extremely impressive. On 28.7 percent of opponents' possessions, the Rams force a turnover, which is the highest rate of any team in college basketball.
Conversely, Michigan only commits a turnover on 14.3 percent of its possessions. Burke is also the No. 1 player in the nation when it comes to assist-to-turnover ratio. Something has to give in this matchup.
Entering the NCAA tournament, when VCU failed to force turnovers on 23 percent of its opponents' possessions, it is a dismal 2-7. When opposing teams turn the ball over at a higher clip than that, though, the Rams are 24-1.
It is clear the Wolverines will need to take care of the basketball and solve VCU's Havoc defense in order to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994. Here are three keys Michigan needs to execute to successfully break the Rams' full-court pressure.
Stay Away From the Sidelines
Keeping the ball in the middle of the floor will be one of the most important things for the Wolverines on Saturday. Dribbling near the sidelines is exactly what VCU wants its opponents to do.
The sidelines are one of the best places to execute a trap, especially near the half-court line.
Guards Darius Theus, Rob Brandenberg and Briante Weber will all look to push Michigan's ball-handlers away from the middle of the floor. The three "wild dogs" make life difficult for trapped guards with their length and quickness.
Once Burke catches the ball on inbounds passes, a VCU defender will immediately get in his grill. The Rams will then sag into their 1-2-1-1 defense, or the double-fist as Burke advances the ball up the floor.
The goal of the man guarding Burke will be to get him to panic, thus making him "oblivious to the oncoming defender," who is usually residing somewhere near the half-court line. This defender will then sprint to the ball and create a "surprise trap."
These traps become even more dangerous near the sidelines where the ball-handler has no way to escape, and will have to pass over two defenders.
Burke and the rest of Michigan's guards need to keep themselves out of these situations by keeping the ball in the middle of the floor when attempting to break VCU's full-court press.
Make Every Pass With a Purpose
The translation for this key is quite simple. Michigan cannot afford to make any lazy passes against the Rams' pressure defense.
Soft, or telegraphed passes will be picked off and are going to result in easy baskets for VCU. Every pass must be made with a purpose in order to avoid turning the ball over against the Rams.
This will not only be important when breaking the press, but also when the Wolverines are executing their half-court offense. VCU's pressure defense is just as dangerous and frustrating for opponents in the half court as it is on the other side of the time line.
Michigan's young backcourt cannot afford to give the Rams easy takeaways by losing focus and making nonchalant passes.
As long as the Wolverines make strong passes without hesitation, they will be able to take down VCU in the third round.
Remain Composed At All Times
One of the reasons why the Havoc defense is so effective is because of how it affects an opponents' psyche. Constant pressure for 40 minutes is difficult to handle for even the best guards in college basketball. Burke and Co. cannot allow VCU to rattle their cages on Saturday.
"We showed some poise and didn't panic. Just stayed under control and tried to control the pace as much as we could. Coach trusted me I was going to do a good job with the pressure. If they were going to trap me, I was going to make a great decision. Just tried to control the pace of the game. Get the ball over half court and then play."
It is inevitable that the Rams will force turnovers, and make a quick scoring run as a result. The young Michigan group simply needs to make sure it does not allow those runs to snowball. Basically, one turnover cannot lead to a loss of poise, which will create another.
Once the Rams get in the heads of their opponents, they have won the battle on the defensive end.
Burke needs to make sure he and his teammates have a short-term memory when it comes to turnovers against VCU.
If the Wolverines become visibly frustrated at any point during Saturday's game, Michigan fans across the country will be in for a long day.
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