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Monday, September 30, 2013
You Gotta See This: Atlantic 10

By Eamonn Brennan

Shaka Smart
Shaka Smart may have his most talented team this coming season at VCU.

It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Today: Havoc in the Atlantic 10.

The backlash is bound to happen soon.

You know how this works: As soon as any style or system or musical genre or meme or anything else reaches cultural critical mass, people get sick of hearing about it. They get grumpy. They start finding flaws, start calling names, start parsing the image from the substance. The Internet allows us to wage these backlashes publicly and at lightning speed, but it's not a new phenomenon. We're Americans. We build you up, and we tear you down. It's always been this way.

Since 2011, when Shaka Smart led his suddenly scorching Rams from the First Four in Dayton to the Final Four in Houston, VCU men's basketball has been on the steady, comfortable ascension portion of the backlash curve. More specifically, the defensive style pioneered by Smart -- HAVOC, he calls it, in all capitals -- has become the hottest, and best-branded, system in all of college hoops. The best part? It works.

Well, sort of. This is why I fear the backlash: Because HAVOC, in which Smart's players aggressively smother opposing ball handlers over the entire floor, for the entire game, got exposed.

Just a few months after the Rams dominated point guard-less Butler, and had the whole world singing HAVOC's praises, a team with a very good point guard proved that if VCU couldn't force turnovers, it couldn't get stops. The numbers bore that out: In 2012-13, VCU forced opponents to turn the ball over on 28.5 percent of its possessions, the highest mark in the country. But if teams didn't turn the ball over, they shot well, grabbed a ton of offensive rebounds, and went to the free throw line all the time. In March, when Naismith player of the year Trey Burke shrugged off the HAVOC, VCU's high-octane system shut down.

That's why this is a pivotal season for the Rams, and for Smart. This may be his most talented team, with few obvious challengers in the realignment-thinned Atlantic 10. But can VCU adjust? Can it force gobs of turnovers without surrendering the other defensive factors? This is the defining question of VCU's 2013-14 season.

But for now, forget all that. Because from an entertainment perspective, there are few teams in the country that offer more fun for your buck than VCU -- gritty, speedy guards flying up and down the floor, harassing opposing ball handlers into submission, the Siegel Center crowd roaring its approval. Flaws or not, VCU's HAVOC is not to be missed.