AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — For once, the matchup is really this simple.
Virginia Commonwealth’s “Havoc Press” causes more turnovers than any other defense in the country. John Beilein’s patient, floor-spacing offense at Michigan has the fewest turnovers of any team in the nation.
The team that keeps that stat in their favor Saturday (12:15 EDT tip-off) is headed to the Sweet 16 in Dallas.
If the Rams can force the Wolverines out of their game and cause 20 turnovers, they’ll get enough easy baskets to pull off the upset. If Trey Burke plays like a Wooden Award winner, he’ll be able to find Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III for what will seem like an endless string on fast-break dunks.
Normally, when a game has a storyline this obvious, the coaches and players will go out of their way to point out that there’s a lot more going on than what the media sees. That didn’t happen at Friday’s press conferences.
“That’s what they do,” Hardaway Jr. said. “That’s really their whole mindset — to turn you over.”
VCU point guard Darius Theus also didn’t have any other answers when he was asked about the key to the game.
“They do a real good job of taking care of the ball, so we need to speed them up and do havoc,” he said. “That’s when I think we can have success.”
Even Shaka Smart, father of the Havoc, knows that his creation will determine the outcome, especially against a team that’s so good at transition offense.
“It’s a risk/reward situation,” he said. “If you press, you are extending your defense past half court. That’s why most people don’t press. They get back in games like this and pack it in.
“But that’s not what we do. We extend our defense and we try to make teams uncomfortable. There’s no doubt we’re putting ourselves at risk for teams to break our press and get easy opportunities. But with what we do, hopefully the reward outweighs the risk.”
It was unanimous. Burke and Beilein both made token attempts to talk about the times the game will actually get into a half-court offense, but both quickly moved back to the VCU press.
“We’re playing a very talented team that plays a very different style than what we see in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “Making that adjustment in one day is going to be difficult.”
If the Wolverines make that adjustment, they’ll be play under the big screen at Cowboys Stadium next weekend. If not, Smart could have the Rams going deep into the tournament for the second time in three years.
Much of Beilein’s press conference Friday was like Old Home Week. He was greeted by several media members who had covered him when he was coaching at Richmond. Back then, VCU wasn’t an NCAA opponent; they were the archrivals from across town.
“I remember playing against them in the old Richmond Coliseum and we lost in the conference tournament to them,” Beilein said. “Then they moved into the new place and we played really well there.
“My last year, though, we were playing as good as we could play and they were having a tough time. They came to our place and just smoked us, so it has always been a great rivalry.”
The battles stuck with Beilein to the point where, 11 years after he moved to West Virginia, he still pays close attention.
“When Richmond plays VCU, I’m still a Spiders fan.”
DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO
Beilein isn’t the poster boy for coaching stability — Michigan is his eighth job as a head coach — but he praised Smart at length for turning down bigger offers to stay at VCU after the Rams made a Final Four run in 2011.
“I think that when Shaka did that, it sent a great message to coaches about considering what they should do when they get an opportunity,” Beilein said. “It was a good thing for college basketball when he stayed, just like it was when Brad Stevens did it at Butler.”
As Beilein pointed out, although he’s moved many times in his long trip from Newfane High School through Division III, Division II and Division I, he hasn’t done it on a whim.
“With the exception of Nazareth College, I’ve stayed at least five years at every school I’ve been,” he said. “Even back at my first job, I always thought I could end up at a place like Michigan, but I always respected the people that hired me.”