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Original Issue

Cry Havoc And Let Slip The Dogs Of Hoops


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 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.

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'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.

As for who has the best defensive stance, it might just be the guy in the suit, who is no passive observer of Havoc. Smart calls out the presses, yells, "Go! Go! Go!" when it's time to trap and even sets an example for his players. "Coach definitely gets the lowest of any of us," Weber says. "He has good hips." When Brandenberg sees Smart in the stance, he's reminded of a favorite photo from last season where he's pressing in front of the bench, "and it looks like Coach is part of the trap."

When Bavery watches VCU games on TV and sees Smart in the stance, the high school coach flashes back to a mental image: He hears a ball bouncing in the gym early one morning in 1994 and peeks in to find Smart working out alone. "He's tossing the ball out to the side, getting in a defensive stance, sliding so he can deflect it, then picking it up and driving to the basket for a lay-in," Bavery recalls. "Nobody does stuff like that." That's how Havoc began, with a teenage guard in an otherwise empty gym, plundering imaginary foes.

Bavery continues to coach—now for the Cardinals of Middleton, a high school outside of Madison—and he continues to press. No more Pitino schemes, though. Bavery has spent enough time at VCU camps that he's been won over by his protégé's system. MTIXE is being phased out after 23 years in favor of something new. This season Bavery put up a banner in the team room that said CARDINAL CHAOS. Had he been coaching an "H" team—Hawks, maybe—he says he might have gone with a similarly alliterative descriptor. But Chaos is still, as Smart might say, a most sincere form of flattery.

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"I'm not worried about creating absolute strength," Roose says. "All I care about is creating ridiculous amounts of energy."


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Photograph by AL TIELEMANS

THE DOUBLE FIST Smart has played YouTube clips of a pack of hyenas attacking larger prey to spur Brandenberg (left) and Juvonte Reddic (right) to chaos.



PACK MENTALITY Weber (2) leads the Wild Dogs—and the nation—in steal percentage, but the Rams' commitment to D starts with Smart (in tie).


Photograph by AL TIELEMANS

GOT YOUR BACK Smart sees Havoc as a potent brand for recruiting and has adorned everything from his players' shooting shirts to billboards with his defensive philosophy.