Men's basketball prepares for tough VCU test
Matchup against Rams feature sharp clash of playing styles
After going all of last year unranked, the No. 25 Virginia men’s basketball team will enter its matchup against No. 14 Virginia Commonwealth University looking to make an early season statement. The matchup against a tough VCU team will serve as a litmus test for the Cavaliers and should be indicative of how the team will be able to fare against the more elite teams in the country.
With all the hype surrounding the matchup, the players have had this game marked on their calendars for quite some time.
“We hear a lot of talk about VCU all the time, how they’re this and that, and so for us to have an opportunity to get a crack at them and play against them, I’m excited,” senior guard Joe Harris said. “I’m excited to play against a good team and a very solid team and kind of a different style than we’re used to.”
Of the last 11 teams to be ranked No. 24 in the preseason AP poll, as Virginia was, only four have made it made to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Given the team’s early season losses last year to teams much less talented than them, the Cavaliers are taking nothing for granted this year.
“We have a chance collectively to be good, I believe that,” coach Tony Bennett said. “But all this hype, all this stuff — you can’t show up and expect it to happen every time. … We know what we can do when we play well, but the reality is, when you don’t, you’re very susceptible.”
The matchup against VCU will be a defensive chess match between Bennett and Rams coach Shaka Smart, who have built two of the most feared defenses in the country. Virginia is known for its pack-line defense — developed by Bennett’s father Dick — which seeks to keep the opponent out of the paint and force tough perimeter shots, and the Cavaliers held opponents to only 55.6 points per game last year.
On the other side, Smart has instituted what he calls the “Havoc” defense at VCU, which employs man-to-man defense and constant adjustments to force opponents to play at a frantic pace. Virginia, with one of the slowest-paced offenses in the country, will try to control the flow of the game with its crisp perimeter passing and trio of skilled big men.
“Basically, [the plan is] bringing the guys together and calming them down, making sure we don’t get sped up by their type of defense,” redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “We don’t need to play VCU’s game, we need to play our game for a full 40 minutes.”
Brogdon has a tough task in running the Virginia offense against an aggressive VCU defense that last year led the country in steal percentage. In fact, no other team since 2005 has forced turnovers at higher rate than last year’s VCU defense.
“You’re going to obviously have to handle the ball,” said Bennett. “They play so fast, guard the dribble, all those things.”
Virginia has been preparing for this game for the past few weeks, using seven or eight players on their scout team to simulate VCU’s swarming defense. The Rams’ frantic pace was sometimes its weakness last year, as it forced them to play some sloppy defense and commit nearly 19.7 fouls per game. The Cavaliers’ success against VCU will hinge on their ability to capitalize on VCU’s proclivity to commit fouls and convert the trips to the foul line into points.
“[The scout players] set up the press and we attack it,” Brogdon said. “And we’ve probably been doing it for two or three weeks straight now, so I think we’ll do well against it.”