NEW YORK -- For years, the debate has raged over whether or not conference tournaments are really a good idea. And, sure, if you have a league that plays a home-and-away round robin -- like the Big 12, Missouri Valley or West Coast -- you'd think that your regular season has already supplied some really good information. A conference like that doesn't want to see its regular-season last-place team waltz into the conference tourney and steal the automatic bid. (Certainly bubble teams from other leagues don't want to see that happen.) I get that.
But what if your conference has 16 members, and each team plays just 16 league games? Such was the case with the Atlantic 10 this season, and I'll be honest. Based on that small smattering of regular-season basketball, I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived at the Barclays Center to watch the A-10 semifinals.
So this particular conference tournament was absolutely a good idea. I know much more about the two winners, Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis, than I did before. Nothing like March basketball on a neutral floor to add some clarity. Here's what I learned. (I mean besides the fact that the VCU band is really, really good.)
If Rams coach Shaka Smart were a brand manager for a Fortune 500 company, he'd deserve a big promotion. The fact that you already know all about the brand of basketball played by a mid-major that until this season was a member of the Colonial Athletic Association is something of a tribute to Smart and the success he's enjoyed in Richmond.
That style is branded as "Havoc," of course, and its purpose is to get the other team to commit turnovers. This season in A-10 play, VCU's opponents gave the ball away on 27 percent of their possessions, easily the highest such number in the league. I knew all about the style, naturally, and all about that remarkable number before I saw Smart's team beat Massachusetts 71-62 in the second semifinal Saturday afternoon.
But until you've seen it in person, it's hard to appreciate Havoc's ability to make the other team's game plan and preparation more or less useless. UMass actually took good care of the ball for the game's first eight minutes or so -- Smart would say afterward he thought his team was "sluggish" early -- but that soon changed dramatically. By the time the dust had settled and the Rams had emerged with their nine-point win, the Minutemen had given the ball away 24 times in a 75-possession game. In light of the fact that Derek Kellogg's team committed a turnover on fully 32 percent of its possessions, it's fairly amazing UMass kept the game as close as it was.
Speaking of amazing, if you're a VCU opponent, the truly insidious thing about Havoc is what it does to you even on possessions where you don't give the ball away. Take Kellogg's team. In theory, UMass should like a fast tempo. This was, after all, the fastest-paced team in A-10 play this season (69 possessions per 40 minutes). But in practice, going fast against the Rams did not work well at all. For long stretches of the second half, the Minutemen were sped up to the point where they would take the first shot they got -- very often a bad shot -- simply to get an attempt off before the next (inevitable) turnover.
This offense needs a cool name, too
For all the acclaim that Havoc has won, the truth that is VCU's offense is better than its defense. Much better. During A-10 play, Smart's team scored 1.13 points per possession, while no other team topped 1.08. Granted, that kind of excellence wasn't evident against UMass, but you can bet Saint Louis head coach Jim Crews knows what's Smart's offense can do, and is preparing accordingly ahead of Sunday's tournament final.
Treveon Graham has put together an excellent season, but on a day when he went 1-of-12 from the floor, it was Troy Daniels who got the Rams over the hump. The 6-foot-4 senior hit 6 of 9 3s on his way to 20 points. Yet even in a game when Daniels' teammates were off with their shooting, VCU's biggest advantage was that it committed just eight turnovers. The Rams are almost as good at avoiding turnovers on offense as they are at forcing them on defense, and the truly enormous turnover margin that results has fueled much of this team's success.
Now the scary part: Saint Louis may be even better than VCU
In the other semifinal at Barclays, the Billikens beat Butler 67-56. If you read Dana O'Neil's piece on the Billikens, you know that no less an observer than Butler coach Brad Stevens was very impressed by SLU. "They're a legitimate contender to win the whole thing," Stevens said after the game. "I believe that wholeheartedly."
What I saw Saturday certainly backs up that assessment. Crews' team boasts the best defense in the A-10, and proved it against the Bulldogs, holding Stevens' squad to 56 points in a 70-possession game. "They are men," BU's coach marveled afterward.
One of those "men" is Dwayne Evans, he of the 24-point, 11-rebound double-double against the Bulldogs. Start saying Evans' name now, and chances are you will look very smart in a couple weeks. The 6-5 junior plays in a balanced offense for an A-10 team, so his isn't what you'd call a household name. All Evans has is the ability to go off against a higher-seeded major-conference opponent in the very near future. You heard it here first.
In the first meeting between Saint Louis and VCU, the Billikens played on their home court and refused to be drawn into any kind of Havoc, committing just eight turnovers in a 56-possession game. SLU won that game easily 76-62. After the semifinal at Barclays, I asked Smart about that earlier game and what his team needs to do to beat the Billikens. "Play better," he told me.
What his answer might have lacked in length, it more than made up for in accuracy. Smart's exactly right. VCU's "normal" game won't be enough against Saint Louis in the A-10 finals. And most teams' "normal" games likely won't be enough against either the Rams or the Billikens in the NCAA tournament. Field of 66 other teams, you've been warned. The A-10's big two are very good at what they do.