By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio
On Saturday afternoon, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies face their toughest test of the season: VCU’s Havoc defense.
The Rams, led by coach Shaka Smart, are one of the top 25 teams in the nation thanks in large part to a constant full-court press that suffocates opposing offenses and forces turnovers in bunches. The second the ball is inbounded, the defenders are trapping, pressuring and deflecting their way to steals and points the other way.
“They’re really active and they press the whole game. After a while it just wears on you,” said sophomore forward Denzel Gregg.
It’s worn on VCU’s 18 victims this year. The Rams force 17.3 turnovers a game, tied for fifth-most in the NCAA. They’ve been in the top three in turnovers forced per game the past three seasons.
An effective pressing team needs effective traps, and no team traps better. At a Coaching U basketball clinic last year, coach Smart emphasized the fundamentals. A good trap is one where the dribble is out of control, the ball handler doesn’t see it coming and there is constant movement; as the ball handler moves, so does the trap.
Smart also stresses to his team that they never trap in the middle of the court and that the guards are the focus. Cornering a big man is dangerous because it can free up a shooter, so they always make sure to get to the backcourt players. All of these elements make for a hellish time for an offense when Havoc is at its most treacherous.
While a lot of credit goes to Shaka’s coaching abilities, and deservedly so, his recruiting abilities are just as crucial to his team’s success. It takes a special type of player to fit into that defensive scheme; they need to be fast, long and extremely athletic, especially the guards.
The best of that guard group was senior Briante Weber, who swiped 374 passes in his collegiate career before going down with a torn ACL and MCL last week against Richmond. Losing Weber is a mammoth loss for the Rams as he was the leader and engine of the team. VCU is not the same team without him, and his absence will certainly have an impact on Saturday’s game.
The Bonnies sympathized with the talented young player.
“It’s kind of sad that he got hurt,” said junior forward Dion Wright. “That’s a very severe injury and they’re definitely going to miss him.”
“It’s a terrible injury; you never want a player to go down,” said senior center Youssou Ndoye. “I feel bad for him and hope he has a good recovery. He’s definitely a big-time defensive player.”
As for the impact the injury will have on the game, the Bonnies know the Rams will still be ready to play. Gregg pointed to Rhode Island rallying to beat SBU a couple weeks ago without star guard E.C. Matthews, who missed the game due to a foot injury.
“He’s a good player, he’s one of the best defensive players in the league, but I think they’re still going to be ready just like Rhode Island was,” he said.
“It’ll have somewhat of an impact, but it’s still Havoc,” added senior guard Andell Cumberbatch. “It’s still VCU, so we’re going to approach it the same way we would if Briante was playing.”
The impact of a sidelined Weber is still to be seen, but one thing this Bonaventure squad definitely has right now is some confidence after a huge win at Davidson on Wednesday night. Marcus Posley’s buzzer-beating floater was a momentum-changer for a team that came in on a two-game losing streak.
“We’re really confident anytime we get a win like that,” said Wright. “It’s going to obviously feed into the next game.”
“Every time you get a win like that, it doesn’t matter if it’s at home or away, you’re going to build from it,” added Ndoye.
To get another big A-10 win on Saturday, the Bonnies will have to handle Havoc better than they did last season, when they lost an 86-67 thrashing in Richmond. Bonaventure turned the ball over a staggering 24 times that game, negating the advantage they had on the glass.
The Bonnies feel they are more prepared to face the Rams this time around.
“I think we have different personnel that will be able to handle the press a little bit better,” said Gregg.
That personnel will have a definite challenge ahead of them. Even with Weber out, VCU has two double-digit scorers to deal with in Treveon Graham and Melvin Johnson, not to mention a forward built like a defensive lineman in Mo Alie-Cox. Graham’s status is up in the air due to an ankle injury, but Johnson and Alie-Cox are good to go.
Defending these powerful offensive threats will be a team task, and Ndoye recognizes that.
“I don’t really think about individual matchups because it’s all about the team and we’re going to guard them as a team. That’s going to determine if we win or lose the game,” he said.
Facing the Havoc is far from easy, but the Bonnies hope they’re up to the task.