PORTLAND, Ore. — When a team wears T-shirts reading “Havoc,” the opponent can’t respond by playing timid basketball. Virginia Commonwealth might beat teams that try to match its aggressive style with equal ferocity, but it will pulverize a team that backs down.
That is why Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall is preaching confidence and swagger to his team leading into today’s NCAA Tournament game.
“If we play confident, we’ll win and that’s why he’s been emphasizing it so much,” junior forward Carl Hall said.
The 12th-seeded Rams (28-6) don’t try to trick anyone. They press and trap from start to finish, throwing a roster of quick, fierce athletes at the ballhandlers. To handle the havoc, VCU’s trademarked name for its style, a player can’t hesitate and allow defenders to swarm. Half-hearted passes are intercepted. Indecision causes turnovers. A weak attempt at the rim will be rejected.
“He wants us to be there and have fun and be comfortable,” WSU junior guard Demetric Williams said of Marshall. “He is stressing to us that this can be a one-time opportunity. He wants us to enjoy it and play with a ton of confidence.”
VCU leads the nation with an average of 10.7 steals and 27.4 percent of their defensive possessions end with a turnover. They force an average of 17.9 turnovers, third nationally. From those deflections and loose balls comes a flurry of layups, dunks and open three-pointers.
As much as any team, VCU’s offense is its defense. The Rams are not a great shooting team — 41 percent overall and 33.7 percent from three-point range. They are out-rebounded regularly, so they need the possessions yielded by turnovers.
“They play their style that they get into you from the jump,” Williams said. “That’s basically their offense. Turn you over, get out in transition and score easy baskets. You’ve got to take care of the ball.”
VCU marched to the Final Four in 2011 with three-point shooting and scoring that could hold its own with its defense. This team relies more on defense and athletes.VCU defeated the Shockers 68-67 last season by forcing only 10 turnovers. A similar number would signal a major problem for the Rams today.
“Their team is totally different,” WSU guard Joe Ragland said. “They had a lot of offensive firepower last year. All those guys could really put points on the board. They didn’t pressure us as much as this team will.”
Fifth-seeded WSU (27-5) appears to possess top-shelf counters to VCU’s presses and traps. Ragland, Williams and Toure Murry can play point guard, giving the Shockers three quality ballhandlers. The five seniors shouldn’t get frazzled. They’ve played teams such as Alabama that apply similar pressure. Should the Shockers escape the traps, they can score in a number of ways.
“We can play fast, which we’ll have to do,” Marshall said. “We’ve had three days to prepare, and hopefully we’ve prepared well.”
WSU is one of the nation’s most efficient offensive teams, averaging 77.7 points and making 48.5 percent of its shots. The Shockers rarely turn the ball over (12.2 a game) and six players average between 8.3 and 13.5 points.
“We’ve just got to do a good job overall defensively taking away their strengths,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “You can’t always take everything away. That’s what good teams do, they can score a variety of ways.”
VCU’s defense is designed to put players in uncomfortable, unfamiliar positions. The Rams want to get the Shockers playing so fast that they zip passes too high and shoot shots they don’t normally attempt. They want to take away the timing and flow so important to any offense.
The pressure is on WSU to decide when to make the Rams pay after breaking the press with a run to the basket and when to show patience.
“We want to take care of our advantages,” Williams said. “If you feel you’re not going to get an easy shot, pull it back out and run a set, run our offense. It’s about making decisions. We’ve just got to go out there with a ton of confidence.”
There is that word again. There is no reason for WSU to lack confidence after winning 17 of its past 19 games. Today’s game against VCU will show how well that swagger plays in March.