Long before the advent of basketball, when an Arc was but a surname of a French heroine, havoc had a close relationship with plunder. If a military commander cried havoc, his troops had license to pillage an enemy. But in its shift from medieval to modern-day usage, havoc took up with devastation and disorder. It is now played or wreaked, not cried, and the whole theft-by-force aspect of it has disappeared—with one sporting exception.
When Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart needed a brand name for his full-court pressing scheme, he settled on Havoc; and what the 16--5 Rams do, essentially, is create organized chaos that leads to an epic amount of plunder. They steal the ball on 17.7% of their defensive possessions and force turnovers 29.3% of the time, and the fact that both rates rank No. 1 nationally doesn't do the Rams justice. They are also the highest steal and second-highest turnover percentages of any team in the 11 years that kenpom.com has tracked those statistics.
When VCU reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2011, Smart's second season as coach, its defense was not nearly as turnover-crazy, forcing takeaways on 22.1% of possessions. "That," Smart says, "was only half-Havoc." Full Havoc is now in place, complete with a full array of jargon: double-fist is VCU's man-to-man trap, which it uses roughly two thirds of the time; diamond is its 1-2-1-1 zone; a madman guards the inbounder and makes sure, Smart says, "he can smell your breath"; a jammer is occasionally employed to keep the ball from being inbounded to a point guard; heating up the ball means putting the dribbler under duress.
Ball-combusting guards are what make the double-fist deadly, and the Rams have three excellent ones in senior Darius Theus (steal percentage: 5.9), junior Rob Brandenburg (2.9%) and sophomore sixth man Briante Weber (8.3%, which leads the nation). As a pack they are called the Wild Dogs.
Although Smart graduated magna cum laude from Kenyon College, Wild Dogs is an inadvertent reference to Marcus Antonius's line from Julius Caesar: "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war." The nickname has primal, rather than Shakespearean, roots.
During this summer's workouts, strength and conditioning coach Daniel Roose, who is sometimes referred to as Havoc's secret weapon, introduced the concept of "wild dog finishers." On the Rams' weight-room TV he played a YouTube clip of a pack of hyenas attacking larger prey, while putting the guards through a series of 20-seconds-on, 10-seconds-off exercises—chaotic activity with less-than-ideal recovery time that makes it ideal training for pressing.
"I'm not worried about creating absolute strength," Roose says. "What would that do for us? We're not walking it up in the Big Ten against Wisconsin. All I care about is creating ridiculous amounts of energy." Roose and Smart are kindred spirits when it comes to fostering an attack mentality. Smart and his assistants regularly splice clips of animals going for the kill into team film sessions—the message being, when you're trapping, think like this. "It may be gruesome, but we love that stuff," Smart says. "In the wild there's no holding back. You've gotta eat."
To see a VCU game up close is to witness a deliberate brand of mayhem: flying bodies create uncomfortable situations for ballhandlers, which lead to turnovers, which are converted into quick-strike points for the Rams. This isn't just how VCU plays; it's how the program defines itself, thanks to a 35-year-old coach who did not invent pressing but happens to be exceptionally savvy about marketing it to recruits.
Not only does the word HAVOC appear on the backs of the Rams' shooting shirts and the cover of their media guide and the lead-in to their pregame video presentation at the Siegel Center, it's on billboards in Richmond (HAVOC LIVES HERE), apparel in the school bookstore and a flag waved by members of the student section, and it is included in the signatures of coaches' e-mails. Even Smart's daughter, Zora, is in on the campaign. Last winter, when she was five months old, she was spotted in a white onesie with HAVOC written in black letters on the front.
All this havocking risks oversaturating the brand, but at VCU it thrives because the product delivers (as Smart says, "What I feel good about is, we actually play how we say we're going to play in recruiting"), and it has a real backstory. Smart did not just stumble upon this defensive philosophy.