Wednesday, July 23, 2014 · 12:02 p.m.
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VCU defenders Troy Daniels (30) and Darius Theus (10) making life miserable for Butler guard Alex Barlow. (Photo: VCU Athletics)

Part one of two

It was a toss away quote, given to the local media in early January by Dayton point guard Kevin Dillard before the Flyers were to play their first game Atlantic 10 game ever against league newcomer VCU.

Asked about the Ram’s helter-skelter full-court defense, Dillard, perhaps feeling confident after having handed out 24 assists and committing only eight turnovers in his previous three games, didn’t seem too concerned.

“That doesn’t scare me,” Dillard said. Being at this level, you’ve seen just about every press you can play against.”

Dillard underestimated two things when he uttered those words. First—and in his defense, he couldn’t have known—then-VCU assistant coach Will Wade typically sleeps only four hours, and the other 20 hours of his day are spent figuring out ways to pound people into the dirt. Wade found that quote online and made sure his team saw it, too. The Rams, it’s safe to surmise, were none too pleased.

Second the VCU press, which, along with the Rams’ equally freewheeling offense is referred to as “Havoc,” is a lot scarier than Dillard thought.

But he became a believer after VCU’s 74-62 victory that included 26 Dayton turnovers. Dillard contributed 10 of them.

Dayton and Dillard weren’t the first victims of Havoc, and they won’t be the last. The system that helped VCU go from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011 has attracted some attention, and athletic directors seeking to tap into that success have steadily plundered the staff of the system’s architect, VCU coach Shaka Smart, the last three years.

The name has changed slightly as the various incarnations of Havoc have been unleashed on college basketball, as teams in the Southern Conference are going to find out next season. That’s because David Blackburn, Chattanooga’s new athletic director, did some staff plundering himself, hiring Wade as his new head coach earlier this month.

SoCon point guards had better brace up. Chaos is coming.

Suffice it to say Wade’s version of Havoc will be no watered-down facsimile of the system. When Smart was hired four years ago, the first hire he made was Wade, with whom he had worked at Clemson. Together, they put together the system—piece by piece, season by season—that a few years from now may be seen as having saved college hoops from the deadly dull, low-scoring root canal games that have become all too familiar in an age where strength training and overly physical defenses have taken over.

Eventually, Smart placed Wade in charge of the press, which Wade plans to faithfully recreate in Chattanooga.

The origins of Havoc

The aptly named Smart takes no credit for his refreshing style of play, describing himself as a sort of Dr. Frankenstein of college hoops after stitching parts of other coaches’ systems together to build a monster.

“It was a combination of stuff that we’ve learned over the years,” Smart said. “I was lucky that I worked for a lot of different guys that either played fast or pressed or did both. We kind of combined stuff that I learned from those guys, and over the last four years we’ve tweaked and adjusted some things that led us to where we are today.”

It’s one thing to press. It’s quite another to build an entire program around it. Havoc is a total buy-in, from recruiting to strength and conditioning to the practice floor and the film room.

Such a commitment is risky, which is why most coaches are loath to play at VCU’s pace.

“There are two reasons for that,” Smart said. “No. 1, it certainly takes a level of control out of your hands as a coach. And No. 2, it’s risky. It’s definitely a style where you can come back from a wide margin, or be down by a wide margin if you play that way.”

The origin of the press comes from Smart and Wade’s days working for Oliver Purnell at Clemson. Purnell’s teams typically press, but at Clemson, the Tigers did so with good reason.

“In the ACC, we realized really quickly that we weren’t gonna get quite the caliber of players that some of the other schools in the league were going to get,” Wade said. “So we needed to do something different.”

Havoc’s lifeblood is Purnell’s press, but over the years, as Smart said, he had some good influences. Some of the system comes from Akron coach Keith Dambrot, who coached LeBron James in high school and knows a thing or two about turning good players loose to do what comes naturally. Smart worked alongside Dambrot at Akron before he was hired at Clemson, and after Clemson, he continued his graduate program on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida. There Smart was reunited with a style of play his high school coach in Wisconsin utilized after watching tapes of Louisville Rick Pitino’s system. Donovan played for Pitino at Providence, worked on his staff at Kentucky and runs a close reproduction of his mentor’s schemes.

Smart has another influence, too, a coach for whom he never worked but admired from afar.

“Nolan Richardson is a mentor of mine,” Smart said of the former ’40 Minutes of Hell’ coach who led Arkansas to the 1994 national championship. “Even though I met him only one time and he probably doesn’t know who I am. But I study him. In our office, we have a stat sheet from the Arkansas team in 1993-94. People say we’re pretty good at playing fast. Statistically, we’re nothing compared to that team.”

Perhaps, but VCU led the country in steals and turnover margin the last two seasons. The Rams haven’t gotten back to the Final Four, but they’ve become a tough out in the NCAA tournament and a pain in the backside for every power conference team they play.

 “It’s a great equalizer,” Wade says of Havoc. “Because you don’t practice against it. We practice this way every day. Every practice, every workout, is about our press and the way we do things and our movement. It’s not something you see a lot, not something you prepare for. It’s really tough to simulate in practice on a one- or two-day prep with walk-ons or your bottom six.

“When I say it’s the great equalizer, when you play teams that are a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, maybe have a little bit more talent than you, the system allows you to have a chance.”

Bombs away

Full-court pressure, both man-to-man and zone with about a dozen variations, is only part of the equation. The rest is playing fast on the offensive end of the floor and making liberal use of the 3-pointer, something Smart learned from Donovan.

Only Smart may be more committed to the 3 than Donovan ever thought about.

“I’d like to make 10 (3s a game) if we can,” Smart said. “It all depends on the game, and it depends on personnel. If you go back and look at our games, the majority of games we’ve lost are because two things happened. Both of them, not just one. No. 1 we weren’t able to make 3s. And No. 2, we weren’t able to turn the other team over. If we can do one or the other, we’re still almost all the time gonna be fine. If we can do both, it’s almost a sure thing we’re gonna win.”

“Everything we do revolves around the 3,” Wade said. “If we make eight or more 3s a game and hold our opponents to five or less, that’s a good differential. The scoreboard moves quickly when you’re bombing in 3s. We like to have threats at four positions, sometimes even one through five.”

The press also allows offense to come from defense.

“We want to create turnovers, get steals, and we want it to lead to early offense,” Wade said. “Sprint up the court. We’ve got a rule that you have to pass a steal. I don’t want guys dribbling the ball after a steal. Once you get the steal, your eyes better look up, you better pass it ahead.

“Try to get up the court as quickly as possible, maybe get it to the wing for a 3, or hit a rim runner for a layup. When we get a steal, we’re automatically thinking convert.”

Next: What Chaos will mean for Chattanooga

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