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(4) Michigan-(5) VCU Preview, Round of 32: Not From the Front

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Michigan takes on the tenacious VCU Rams and their full-court, havoc-wreaking press. The Wolverines have not seen a press so well-executed since last season's Arkansas game; then again, VCU has not seen a player as talented as Trey Burke.

VCU's Briante Weber averages 2.7 steals per game.
VCU's Briante Weber averages 2.7 steals per game.
Gregory Shamus


Despite a somewhat shaky first half for the Wolverines against South Dakota State, the second half was prolific enough for Michigan to run away with a 15-point victory (CALLED IT, I AM NOSTRADAMUS). Nate Wolters, whose name you had probably read a hundred times in the past several days, shot just 3/14 from the field (0/5 from three) en route to a 10-point effort, not nearly enough for the Jackrabbits to pull off the upset.

Even more impressive is the fact that Michigan got the win with Burke having his weakest game, offensively, in quite some time, going 2/12 from the field for six points; however, he did dish out seven assists.

This time, Michigan faces a 40-minutes-of-hell squad in Shaka Smart's VCU Rams. The Rams and their "havoc" brand of basketball will test Michigan's ball-handling, which even now can be somewhat shaky when the ball isn't in Burke's hands. All you need to do is remember Michigan's visit to Arkansas last season to see what can happen when you let the press ambush you in the game's opening minutes.

The Razorbacks jumped out to a 29-10 lead in the game's first ten minutes, and although the Wolverines rallied back, a Trey Burke iso three-ball away from victory, Michigan spent the entire game attempting to come back, not an ideal scenario no matter who you are or what style you play.

If Michigan goes down by 19 in this game, it is extremely unlikely that they'll be able to claw their way back into it like they did in Fayetteville last January.

The Opponent

The fifth seed Rams come into this game with a 27-8 (12-4) record. Despite getting knocked off by Saint Louis in the A-10 title game, the Rams still had another tremendous season, their losses coming against: Wichita State, Duke, Missouri, Richmond, La Salle, Temple and Saint Louis (twice).

So, they can certainly be beaten, and there's no need for Michigan to be shaking in its boots. However, it won't be easy, especially if Michigan is not prepared for the intensity the Rams will bring to the floor.

VCU boasts a quartet of double-digit scorers in 6'5'' Treveon Graham (15.2 ppg), 6'9'' Juvonte Reddic (14.6 ppg), 6'4'' Troy Daniels (12.4 ppg) and 6'2'' Rob Brandenberg (10.5 ppg).

Melvin Johnson, Darius Theus and Briante Weber are the other three guys logging big minutes, all 6'3'' guards/defensive piranhas. When the press begins to work and there's blood in the water, either Theus or Weber are likely around for the steal; they average 2.7 and 2.5 steals per game, respectively.

As you would expect, the Rams lead the nation in turnovers forced per game (19.9). Although it was a blowout against an Akron team missing its starting point guard, the five Rams picked up two steals in Thursday's opening round matchup. If Aaron Craft is a Tyrannosaurus rex of defense then VCU is most definitely the hypercoordinated raptors.

VCU Rams set up the full-court press

And that is my cue to include this surprisingly relevant quote from Dr. Alan Grant:

A turkey, huh? OK, try to imagine yourself in the Cretaceous Period. You get your first look at this "six foot turkey" as you enter a clearing. He moves like a bird, lightly, bobbing his head. And you keep still because you think that maybe his visual acuity is based on movement like T-Rex - he'll lose you if you don't move. But no, not Velociraptor. You stare at him, and he just stares right back. And that's when the attack comes. Not from the front, but from the side, from the other two raptors you didn't even know were there.

If Michigan (i.e. Trey Burke) attempt to dribble its way out of the press, they will be playing into the Rams' hands (or claws). Speed of thought and action will be the name of the game; hold the ball or dribble it a few too many times and you're raptor food. Other than the whole "not moving" part, attacking the VCU press will be not unlike that kitchen scene from Jurassic Park.

Offensively, the Rams naturally get much of it from their defense. However, Graham, Brandenberg and Theus are all solid three-point shooters (36%, 36%, 34%), and Troy Daniels is deadly, shooting 41% on 299 attempts, by far the most on the team. He led VCU with 23 points and shot 6/11 from downtown in yesterday's 46-point victory against Akron.

The Gameplan

  • DON'T PANIC. The name of this game is fairly simple. If Michigan can get through the first 5-10 minutes without the Rams sticking them with an unwieldy deficit, the odds of victory will skyrocket. Once again, Arkansas game yada yada yada. VCU has quickness, a well-studied system and some guys who can shoot the three. This is a deadly combination in concert, but it isn't without its weaknesses. Also, VCU has played some very good teams this season, but none of them had Trey Burke.
  • Burke, you're driving. Part of me thinks that Michigan should run on 100% of VCU misses, but another part of me says that maybe the Wolverines shouldn't be playing to that pace (think early on in the Indiana game at Crisler). In short, it has to be up to Burke's judgment. Are you sensing a theme here? If Michigan wins this one, it will be because of Burke; if he scores six points, Michigan is likely not winning this game.
  • Half court game. As weird as it is to say, if Michigan makes this a Big Ten game and not a VCU game, they will win this relatively comfortably (i.e. 6-8 points). Michigan put up its best defensive performance yesterday since the Michigan State victory at home. If the Wolverines can force VCU to get into its half court sets and expend energy on that end, advantage Michigan. Of course, everything will follow from how Michigan handles the press in the opening minutes, which is part of what makes a well-executed press such a dangerous thing.
Miscellaneous Stats
  • True, the Rams are a guard-oriented, speedy squad of raptors, but Reddic can do some work in the paint; he's 10th nationally and first in the A-10 in offensive rebounds. It seems like this is a guy that Michigan could use Jordan Morgan to check, but it appears he has been Vogrich'd. Against VCU, though, rolling with Jon Horford and Mitch McGary again is likely a wise call.
  • As a team, VCU hits a solid 35.5% from three. However, the real story is that they're 8th nationally in attempts and 10th in three-pointers made. They will certainly look to find those open shooters spotting up after the havoc of the press has done its job and secured a turnover.
  • Rebounding. The Rams are a great offensive rebounding team, 29th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (37.1%). On the other end, they're not so great, with a defensive rebounding percentage of 65.4% (296th nationally). If Michigan can get into the half court, McGary and Horford should have a field day. I'm not saying it will look like Payne and Nix rebounding against Michigan, but they should be able to get some put-backs.
Ending Thoughts, Predictions, Etc.

VCU delivered a historic rout on Thursday, albeit against a short-handed Akron squad. The Rams play an intense style of ball that eviscerates teams without composure, leadership or basketball smarts.

It is reductive, but this game comes down to, in large part, how Michigan handles the press in the opening minutes. Teams like VCU are built to jump on you in the opening minutes and slowly squeeze the life out of you like a boa constrictor with a predilection for basketball.

Michigan can't afford another poor day from the field for Burke (not that it needed a great day against SDSU), but I have a hard time imagining Burke putting up consecutive single-digit scoring games.

I imagine (and sort of hope) that we will see a lot of the Spike Albrecht-Burke lineup. Michigan will need Spike's underrated confidence when attempting to break the VCU press. I do worry about what happens when Tim Hardaway Jr. has the ball in the back court, as his handle still doesn't exactly inspire confidence. However, if THJ can limit the turnovers and Burke can trust his teammates to make the right plays, Michigan should be fine.

This game could go either way, really, which I suppose you could say for a significant majority of games in this tournament. I could see Michigan reprising that Arkansas game tomorrow afternoon, but I could also see them come out firing, looking like the team that was ranked No. 1 in the land on more than one occasion.

Michigan is not a team without flaws, to be sure, but the press itself, as vaunted as VCU's may be, can be beaten. For the first time in a long, long time, Michigan makes it past the first weekend.

Michigan 75, VCU 72.