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Cry Havoc And Let Slip The Dogs Of Hoops
Luke Winn
February 04, 2013
NOT SINCE NOLAN RICHARDSON'S ARKANSAS TEAMS OF THE 1990'S HATH A PROGRAM UNLEASHED 40 MINUTES OF HELL QUITE LIKE THAT OF VCU'S MEN OF STEAL
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February 04, 2013

Cry Havoc And Let Slip The Dogs Of Hoops

NOT SINCE NOLAN RICHARDSON'S ARKANSAS TEAMS OF THE 1990'S HATH A PROGRAM UNLEASHED 40 MINUTES OF HELL QUITE LIKE THAT OF VCU'S MEN OF STEAL

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It started with MTIXE. If you're struggling to pronounce that, you're not alone; that's one reason the acronym never blew up. But MTIXE was what Smart's coach at Oregon (Wis.) High, Kevin Bavery, wrote on his whiteboard before every game. It meant Mental Toughness Intensity Xtra Effort, all of which was called for in Bavery's press. Smart, a 5' 10" point guard, was on the front line of a 2-2-1. Their pressing scheme was taken straight from a VHS instructional tape that Rick Pitino had put out in 1989.

A seminal Smart memory, from his sophomore year of high school, is of watching this tape on a small TV in Bavery's office and seeing a chipper Pitino break down his "black" and "white" presses. Smart says he was "kind of a nerd" back then, and he relished the film-and-discussion sessions he had with Bavery. "That was the first time," Smart says, "that I started thinking like a coach."

Smart played point guard for Kenyon, and he became a coach immediately after graduating. He sponged up knowledge from a series of bosses, including Akron's Keith Dambrot, who taught him the importance of ball pressure, and Florida's Billy Donovan, who would say, ad nauseam, We've got to get the game going to our style of play. At Clemson, under Oliver Purnell, Smart developed the principles of his attacking style: The Tigers ran and full-court pressed with the diamond and the double-fist. Purnell had his own influences—John Thompson Jr.'s late-'80s Hoya Paranoia teams, Pitino's Kentucky powerhouses and Nolan Richardson's 40 Minutes of Hell at Arkansas—and while Clemson-ball never entered the lexicon of college hoops, "We used phrases like havoc, frenzy, and spurtability," Purnell says. It was a system that let Clemson contend in the ACC with athletic but overlooked recruits who bought in, and Smart figured it could also be used to put a mid-major on the map. There was no shame in borrowing from the blueprints. Smart asks rhetorically, "What do they say is the most sincere form of flattery?"

At Smart's introductory press conference as VCU's coach on April 2, 2009, he wasted no time laying out his philosophy saying, "We are going to wreak havoc on our opponents' psyche and their plan of attack."

That May, Smart called a meeting with his new staff to talk about the program's identity, and invited in Dave Telep, a friend who was then Scout.com's lead recruiting analyst, to act as an adviser. In a conference room outside the VCU coaches' offices, Smart and his new staff—Will Wade, Bill Courtney, Kyle Getter and Mike Rhoades—sat around a table while Telep stood in front of a whiteboard. The first word he wrote was HAVOC. "My thought was, Havoc is kind of hardcore, it's kind of sexy, it's easy to remember, and Shaka had already said it once," Telep says. "There wasn't even much debate about it. The next step was to live it and then introduce it to the public."

Telep left Richmond wondering how well it would catch on. A few years later, while driving near Richmond on I-95, he would shake his head in amazement. Havoc had gone from a whiteboard to a billboard.

How does a program live Havoc? Smart devotes nearly all of his preseason practice time to defense, and exhausting, full-court games of one-on-one lay the foundations for the press. There are rules about not showing fatigue: no tugging on your shorts, ever—that's what opponents do—and if you fall to the floor, you need to be up within one second, getting back in the play. And you best learn the three elements of a perfect trap in double-fist: location (a sideline is always better than the middle of the court, and just over the halfcourt line is better than just before), the ballhandler's level of control (the ball must be heated up) and the degree of surprise (says Smart, "Anytime you can trap on the turn, when you see the back of the ballhandler's head, it's terrific").

Assistant coach Will Wade, who was with Smart at Clemson, oversees the press; players receive press scouting reports of every opponent, and Wade tracks the efficiency of every pressing scheme. While VCU has two base presses, there are actually 11 variations—twists and hybrids built in, Wade says, as Havoc has transitioned "from the low-risk, low-reward version you saw in the Final Four, to the high-risk, high-reward version you see now."

The rewards have increased because the roster is stocked with players hand-picked for Havoc. Says Wade, "We spend a lot of time in recruiting talking about, 'Is he going to be a good presser?'" They figured Weber, a 6' 2" praying (or preying?) mantis of a guard who had been pressing since he was 11 in Norfolk, would be good, and now they see him as Havoc personified. In VCU's season-opening 80--57 win over Florida Gulf Coast he had 10 steals in 18 minutes, and on Jan. 9 against Dayton he had nine in 28 minutes in a 74--62 victory.

Brandenberg jokes that the ultra-accessorized Weber (mouth guard, headband, padded left-arm sleeve, taped wrists, shin-and-knee pads) looks like a create-a-player from an NBA2K video game but says his defense is serious business. The Wild Dogs agree, however, that the 6' 3" Theus is the one who should be called on to deliver a stop in crunch time.

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