The Rams have employed Coach Shaka Smart’s full-court press that created havoc in VCU’s improbable run to the Final Four this past year. That philosophy played out Thursday night when No. 12 VCU took down No. 5 Wichita State.
VCU (29-6) will look to continue that when it takes on IU (26-8) on Saturday night at 7:10 p.m. ET at Rose Garden Arena.
“We really depend on our pressure defense,” Smart said. “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.”
It’s no secret the Rams have made a living off of forcing turnovers. This past year’s Cinderella story is No. 1 in the country averaging 10.6 steals per game.
“Defense wins games,” VCU junior guard Darius Theus said. “I know Coach really put an emphasis on it this year. We really have to give 100 percent of our energy on defense. He gives us a lot of freedom on offense, so he just wants to be very committed on defense, and I think that’s what it is this year.”
VCU’s high pressure defense triggered the Rams 18-1 streak they’ll take into Saturday night’s showdown.
While VCU is back to pulling off upsets in March, this isn’t this past year’s squad.
“The only similarity is the name on the jersey,” VCU senior guard Bradford Burgess said. “Our defense is one of the best, and we’ve done a great job of getting teams out of what they do. Hopefully we can continue to do that.”
Burgess is the only player left of VCU’s top five leading scorers this past season. The Rams are no longer No. 2 in the country in 3-point shooting.
Now, the Rams make their living on the defensive end, which Burgess said isn’t a bad thing.
“We tried to almost outscore teams sometimes, and that hurt us last year,” Burgess said. “But this year, we’ve done a great job for the majority of the season of getting teams out of what they do and forcing our havoc on them on the defensive end.”
But VCU will not be dealing with a turnover-happy IU squad. IU only turns the ball over 12.7 times per game, good for 236th in the country.
VCU has forced 20-plus turnovers 12 times this year. IU, on the other hand, has yet to reach the 20-turnover mark in a game.
“We don’t change anything at all,” Theus said. “We’re going to bring our style to the game. We’re going to pressure. We’re going to be very aggressive like we’ve always been. We’re just going to try to force turnovers like we’ve been doing all season.”
Whether or not IU can break VCU’s press and get out into the open floor remains to be seen. Smart said having a post player that can run the floor like IU freshman forward Cody Zeller will present a challenge.
“If you can get the ball in extremely quickly before the press is set up, then that's one way to beat pressure defensive teams,” Smart said. “So for us, that's going to be a big point of emphasis. We have to get in the press quickly and make sure we get back and take away layups from (Zeller).”
VCU’s press has kept opposing offenses from getting started as of late. The Rams allowed an average of 25.5 first-half points in their past four postseason games.
If VCU wants to pull off another upset in March, Smart said his squad will have to execute the defensive gameplan that has stymied opponents all season.
“In theory, our style is something that will be new for them to see tomorrow,” Smart said. “In theory, that should be an advantage for us. Hopefully our guys can turn theory into practice.”
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