Whether SLU is ready or not, here comes VCU’s Havoc defense

Austin McBroom is the only Billiken with any significant experience facing the VCU Rams' suffocating Havoc defense. 

ST. LOUIS — Saint Louis University coach Jim Crews often talks about the challenge that "slowing down the game" is for players when they arrive in college.

He favors a windshield-wiper analogy to compare the difference in the speed of the game at different levels. When a former high school stud first steps onto a college court, Crews says it’s like the wipers are set at the highest speed. But if all goes well, in a couple of years that youngster has grown up and the wipers seem to have slowed to almost an intermittent setting.

With the Billikens (9-9, 1-4) more than halfway into their season, Crews says he has seen the six freshmen he’s playing regular minutes become more used to the speed and intensity of Division I basketball. "Maybe a little more individually than collectively right now, but that will come," the coach said.

Crews and the Billikens will find out just how much they’ve grown Friday night when they play host to 16th-ranked Virginia Commonwealth, the class of the Atlantic 10 Conference.

"They want to speed you up on everything," Crews said. "That’s the ultimate test from that standpoint. They’ve got 12 guys that are quick and long and we don’t."

The Rams apply pressure at such a frenzied pace that their defense has a special name, Havoc defense. VCU averages 10.6 steals, third most in the nation and almost twice as many as SLU, and force 17.8 turnovers, ninth best in the nation.

Crews, however, says the Billikens will not radically change their approach to combat VCU’s pressure. They certainly don’t plan on trying to run with the Rams, but neither do they want to turn the game into a crawl.

"If you go too fast, you get blurred vision. If you go too slow, they just get into you too much," Crews said.

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No doubt, VCU offers a challenge unlike any most of the Billikens ever have faced. Only 5-foot-9 junior guard Austin McBroom saw much of the court against VCU last year, and his minutes lately have been cut back as SLU has tried a longer lineup. Crews said McBroom likely will see more time against VCU because he is the team’s only ball-handler who has faced the Havoc.

Freshman guards Marcus Bartley, who has settled into the starting lineup, and Miles Reynolds have been warned all week about the pressure and the physicality of the Rams. The Billikens have focused on beating VCU’s pressure, but what they have gone against in practice will pale in comparison to what they will face in real time.

"They try to intimidate you and try to pressure you," Bartley said. "You don’t want to be scared of the press, you want to attack the press. Within that, you can fall into easy shots. We just have to take care of the ball and make smart plays."

Sounds easy enough. But even last season’s senior-laden Billikens committed 17 turnovers and lost by 11 at VCU. That setback snapped SLU’s three-game winning streak over the Rams that included a 62-56 victory in the 2013 conference tournament final that marked SLU’s last victory against a ranked team.

While Crews believes the Rams are better than a season ago — better shot-blockers, he said — the Billikens are paying the price of losing their entire starting lineup to graduation.

"It’s college basketball, so certain years in certain programs there’s going to be a lot of change. They’ve got some really good young guys, some guys that show a lot of promise," VCU coach Shaka Smart said earlier this week on a conference call. (He singled out SLU leading scorer Milik Yarbrough as "probably the best freshman in the league so far.")

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"When you watch them play, because coach Crews plays a lot of guys — he may play a deeper bench than anyone in the conference — you look at it and say, ‘Those guys are going to be good.’"

The key words, of course, are "going to be." So far, the Billikens have been very good in only a few games and not so hot in a host of others. They have lost five of their past six games and, in that skid, managed to break 55 points only twice. SLU ranks last in the conference in scoring with an average of 51 points; VCU, averaging 75.7, trails only Davidson.

The Rams also boast far more experience with their top three scorers all upperclassmen who long ago adjusted to the college game. Nowadays, they are turning up the speed to an uncomfortable level against any and all opponents, as the young Billikens are about to find out. 

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.