If the Bearcats and the Aztecs are brothers in their approach, the Bearcats and the VCU Rams are more like distant cousins. Both teams want to win with defense, but their methods for winning on defense are very, very different. The Bearcats are nothing short of a brick wall in the half court, and they want to play the game in the half court. Its easier for the Bearcats to wear on teams over 40 minutes by forcing them to play in the half court. Even when the Bearcats pressure teams full court, they don't do so in an aggressive trapping style. They commit two guys to pressure the ball handler into taking as much time as possible to get the ball over half court. The goal, make teams work to get the ball across the halfway line in under 10 seconds. Then make them grind against your half court defense for 25 seconds. The Bearcats defense as currently deployed is attrition based. Turnovers and run outs are an added bonus, they are not the goal.
The Rams under Shaka Smart are really the antithesis, there is even an easy to digest buzz word that can be used to over simplify what they want to do defensively.
It is brought up every single time someone tries to explain VCU basketball for the neutral fan. It has become the single by word for VCU basketball, as much a part of their brand as the C-Paw is for the Bearcats. For Shaka Smart the goal is to force the opposing offense to play at an ever faster, ever more destructive pace.
That is why two teams who's reputation to outsiders really begins and ends with defense are actually practitioners of wildly divergent styles of basketball. The battle ground for the Bearcats and the Rams is a familiar one, the pace of play. VCU wants nothing more than to play a game with north of 70 possessions. When VCU has struggled this year it has been with teams who have inflicted their pace of play onto the Rams.
Consider this; in the Ram's three losses this year* those games were played at a glacial pace, an average of 61 possessions per game. In their seven wins the pace has been much, much faster with an average of about 72 possessions per game. That is a huge disparity to be sure, but it is just the start of it
*Villanova, Old Dominion, and Virginia
What's really fascinating to me is that those three teams also posted sky high efficiency numbers relative to the rest of the Rams opponents. Villanova posted an efficiency rating of 128.3, OD
BU posted a 114.1 and Virginia posted a 123.3. Northern Iowa and Illinois State both prefer to play with the kind of deliberate pace that the Bearcats favor, and both had some success against the Rams in losses.
Its not just the defensive end where the Rams struggle against teams that force them to play in the half court. Their worst two outings offensively this season have come against Villanova and UVA, where they posted efficiency numbers well under 100*
*Remember that an efficiency number of 100 is, more or less, perfectly average.
The long and the short of it is that the Bearcats are a tough match up for VCU because they resist the urge to play faster. The whole goal of the Havoc style is to force the opposition to play at a pace beyond their means. The faster the opposition plays, the more comfortable they become. That won't really work against the Bearcats, a lot of teams have tried to speed the Bearcats up in the Mick Cronin era, but you can count on a hand or two the number of times that has been successful at that; Ohio State in the sweet 16, at Villanova in 2011, the crosstown shootout in 2009 and that might be the list.
Most teams that have tried that approach have reached the conclusion that I reached with Mick a long time ago. It doesn't really matter how much you poke and prod, or yell and scream at a glacier to move faster. At the end of the day it is still a glacier, and it is going to take it's sweet time going where ever it is it's going. Here is to VCU coming to the same realization today.