AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) – Michigan’s poise and VCU’s pressure.
Control versus chaos.
This NCAA tournament matchup will indeed be strength against strength.
“They’re trying to wreak havoc,” Wolverines coach John Beilein said. “We love to be able to get a shot every time up the floor. You can shoot a lower percentage and have a bad night, but if you get a shot every time, it’s really a game of possessions.”
Fourth-seeded Michigan takes on fifth-seeded VCU on Saturday in what could be the weekend’s most anticipated game. The Wolverines are the best team in the nation at avoiding turnovers, and nobody forces them quite like the Rams. Throw in Beilein and Shaka Smart, two respected coaches with postseason experience – and Michigan star Trey Burke, whose job is to direct the Wolverines through VCU’s press – and this has all the makings of a classic.
“They always have terrific spacing on the floor, but more so than that, it’s about their personnel,” Smart said. “They’ve got great guards. Trey Burke is a lot of people’s pick for national player of the year. I haven’t seen a guard better than him.”
Michigan (27-7) was ranked No. 1 in the nation earlier this season, but the Wolverines slipped to a No. 4 seed after a difficult stretch run in the Big Ten. Michigan is playing about 50 miles from its Ann Arbor campus this weekend, but VCU (27-8) sent an emphatic warning to future opponents with an 88-42 victory over Akron in its NCAA tournament opener Thursday night.
Troy Daniels had 23 points and Juvonte Reddic scored 21 for VCU in that one. `Havoc’ is the word the Rams use to describe their pressure – and it was certainly accurate Thursday, when Akron turned the ball over 22 times.
The Rams force an average of 19.9 turnovers per game, the most in the nation. Michigan only commits 9.2 per game, which is the fewest in the nation. Burke, along with fellow guards Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas, will face a major test – one that Big Ten play didn’t really prepare them for.
In fact, the Wolverines have to look all the way back to December to find an opponent on their schedule that reminds them of VCU.
“Arkansas was a team that plays similar,” Burke said. “They pressed pretty much the whole game.”
Michigan beat the Razorbacks 80-67, turning the ball over 12 times. VCU is an NCAA tournament team and Arkansas is not, but that game illustrates the challenge facing the Rams. If the Wolverines can get the ball across halfcourt, can VCU stop them?
“It’s always a risk-reward situation. If you press, you’re extending your defense past halfcourt,” Smart said. “That’s why most people don’t press, because they want to get back and pack it in. But that’s not what we do.”
Michigan will have its own obstacles, especially since the Wolverines will play VCU after only one day off. Fatigue may not be a factor because of the tournament’s long official timeouts, but Michigan simply hasn’t had a lot of time to prepare for what the Rams will try to do.
“VCU’s found a way to be able to press and still not give out open looks,” Beilein said. “You have to have superior quickness to do that. They do. You have to have a great plan and a changing scheme, which they do, but it’s something that we don’t see.”
There are other subplots too. At first glance, the 60-year-old Beilein might not have much in common with the 35-year-old Smart. The VCU coach was born the year before Beilein started his career as a collegiate head coach.
But one of Beilein’s many coaching stops was at Richmond, which shares a rivalry and a city with the Rams. Beilein was also impressed when Smart stayed at VCU after coaching the Rams to the Final Four in 2011.
“That sent a great message to what a lot of coaches should consider,” Beilein said. “I’m a coaching nomad. I’ve been to so many different places, but every time it’s been five years at least, and I’ve always had a lot of respect for Shaka. I’ve known him as both an assistant and then as a head coach.”
With little time for new wrinkles, both teams know what to expect: VCU will try to impose its will on Michigan, and the game may come down to how successful the Rams can be.
“Pressure the ball, deny the wings, do what we do,” VCU guard Darius Theus said. “They do a real good job of taking care of the ball, so we just can speed them up – and just do havoc.”
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