Sun Tzu's oft-studied military strategy guide The Art of War was written more than 2,000 years ago in a land on the other side of the world. Its teachings have been applied across nearly every business and political pursuit imaginable.
It resonates throughout havoc as well. I ran into one chapter–offensive strategy–that was particularly adaptable as to what makes havoc successful. Sun Tzu writes that there are five circumstances in which victory can be predicted. Here's how they apply to VCU basketball:
He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious. When applied to basketball, this is about stubborness and maturity. One of the team's issues last year was that VCU was not a good halfcourt defensive team, and a terrible zone defense team. The criticism that VCU either stole the ball or was in jeopardy defensively was fair. You've seen the coaches working on a zone and pull back from havoc on occasion in the early season. They want to be able to back off when appropriate, and to step on the accelerator when needed. What's more, they are all a year older and wiser. That gives them freedom to tinker a bit more with confidence.
He who understands how to use both large and small forces will be victorious. This is where Terrance Shannon and Mo Alie Cox make a big difference. It allows the coaching staff to go with a big lineup when its working, and a small lineup when that is needed. It isn't as much about depth as its about creativity and options. We are three games into the season and you can see the lineup tinkering. Once the staff figures out how to best utilize the players? Uh-oh.
He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious. This one is the most obvious, and perhaps the most difficult to achieve. If Juvonte Reddic wants to audition for NBA scouts or Melvin Johnson wants more shots or JeQuan Lewis wants more minutes, that's dilutive to the process of winning. VCU has worked its way to a top 10 ranking because, as Shaka said in March 2011, "it's amazing what you can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit." It's why connectors are so very important, and putting individual goals aside for the greater good a focus. Everybody wants to win, and it takes everybody to win.
He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious. This one, to me, is all about preparation. It's the coaching staff eating up film and diagramming strategy, and counter-strategy. It could be that possession or two of zone. A tweak in the press to move a player to a different area. Having a player cut baseline behind a screen for a backdoor pass instead of curling around it. You know those plays where The Freight Trein or Brandenberg has the ball eight feet from the basket and drops a pretty dime to a cutting Reddic for a dunk? That's the coaching staff drawing up a counter, laying in wait.
I always go back to this example, the hammer example. VCU had maybe 36 hours after its Elite Eight win over Florida State to prepare for Kansas. Every time the Jayhawks crossed halfcourt and got into their offense, Mike Jones was calling out their plays.
He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious. This is my favorite. One thing this coaching staff understands better than any that I've been around–whether VCU or any other program–is that you have to let the kids play the game. There's a naturalness to basketball that flows. In fact, the havoc style demands that you react based off cues, but you have to make plays instead of thinking about what you are supposed to do next. It's straightforward: let the players make plays based on a coaching strategy.
A perfect example of this was the last second shot at Virginia. The coaches drew up that Brandenberg was going to get a high, double-screen and he was supposed to cut off of that to make a play and get a shot. If it wasn't there, he would find Treveon Graham on a pitch back. That's it. A simple strategy, really, that gave VCU two options to score. There was no overcoaching of "look high, look low for this cutter, then make a safe pass to Treveon." Nope. It was simply we're ssetting a screen for Rob, or we're getting the ball to Tre. Bang.
Put another way: there was no coaching in Eric Maynor's dagger.
To those traveling to Puerto Rico: please travel safely. We will see you down there. To those not making the trip: you are with us in spirit.