IU trying to deal with VCU’s press

PORTLAND, Ore. — Indiana admits it. It hasn’t seen anything like what it’s going to see today.

At 7:10 p.m. eastern time at the Rose Garden, the No. 4 seeded Hoosiers will play a Virginia Commonwealth team in the third round of the NCAA Tournament that will bring more constant and effective full-court pressure than any other team they’ve seen this season.

The Hoosiers (26-8) have played four of the top 20 teams in the nation in scoring defense and three of the top four in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. But of their opponents only Kentucky was anywhere near as full-court oriented as VCU and even the Wildcats were more content with sitting back and waiting for the ball to cross the timeline.

“In the Big Ten they don’t press 40 minutes a game,” sophomore guard Victor Oladipo said. “That’s one thing that’s totally different than what we’re used to. They have the length of Kentucky and they really do play at a high level for 40 minutes.”

Said junior forward Derek Elston: “We’ve gone up against the press a lot, but I’m not sure one as good as VCU’s. They’re relentless. They’re everywhere on the floor, so we gotta be really smart with the ball.”

VCU was already a practitioner of the press when coach Shaka Smart arrived before the 2009-10 season. Anthony Grant, the previous head coach who left to take the job at Alabama, was, like Smart, a former assistant coach under Billy Donovan at Florida. The Rams had been recruiting length and athleticism long prior to that, which usually made them one of the better turnover-inducing teams in the Colonial Athletic Association.

But Smart took it to a new level by introducing a full-court pressure that he calls “Wreaking Havoc” or “Havoc Ball.” The intensity and consistency of the press is reminiscent of Nolan Richardson’s “40 minutes of Hell,” in Arkansas.

“There were some guys that had pressing concepts built in,” Smart said. “Anthony Grant did a terrific job, getting guys to play hard, getting guys to extend ball pressure. … So when we got there a few years ago, we put in our presses and we’ve kind of built the system from there and continued to evolve it.”

Last year it was effective enough to make the Rams one of the most inspiring cinderella stories in NCAA Tournament history. They were one of the last teams selected from the tournament and the committee drew significant criticism for inviting an at-large team from a mid-major conference with a 23-11 record at the time. However, the Rams won a play-in game over Southern California, then upset Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas before falling to Butler in the national semifinal.

That team, however, also had scorers and offensive firepower with Jamie Skeen, a 6-foot-8 power forward who averaged 15.7 points per game and hit 36 3-pointers, and speedy point guard Joey Rodriguez, who averaged 10.4 points and 5.2 assists per game. This squad lost four of five starters, returning wing Bradford Burgess, and needed to win in different ways.

The Rams did. They lead Division I in steals with 371 (10.6 per game) and turnovers caused with 622 (17.7). They are also 20th in Division I in scoring defense, allowing just 59.7 points per game. That’s led to 18 wins in the Rams’ last 19 games, including a CAA championship and Thursday night’s dramatic victory over Wichita State.

“I think we’re much better defensively than we were last year,” Smart said. “Last year’s team could be good on defense at times and we were at times, but nowhere near the level of focus, game-in, game out, for a 40-minute period, as this team is. … We really depend on our defensive pressure. We depend on our ability to stop teams in the half court, and I think that’s what’s allowed us to win 29 games.”

The Rams certainly have vulnerabilities. They shoot a modest 41.0 percent from the field and 33.5 percent from beyond the arc, and they ranked 10th in the CAA in rebounding. Smart admitted the Rams haven’t seen anything like Indiana freshman center Cody Zeller.

But the Hoosiers know if they want to take advantage of that and earn their first Sweet 16 trip since 2002, they have to be able to get the ball up the floor.

“We just have to take care of the basketball,” junior guard Jordan Hulls said. “That’s all there is to it. They just pressure the full-length of the court all the time. They do it randomly sometimes whether they’re bringing another guy heading down the floor. We just have to do a good job of preparing for that.”



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