Rising star Smart fuels VCU's crazy run with characteristic conviction
Going from the First Four to the Final Four, VCU has achieved the unimaginable
Shaka Smart has an enviable level of preparation and ability to articulate a vision
After a stunning win over Kansas, Smart had an enormous surprise for his team
HOUSTON -- On Sunday night, after Virginia Commonwealth University had reached the Final Four by razing No. 1 Kansas, 71-61, I met the coach who'd shocked the nation in a moment of rare quiet. Shaka Smart stood in the back corner of the VCU locker room, several feet behind the screen he'd used to project a montage of pundits unanimously predicting a Jayhawks victory before the game. Such ploys, of course, have become Smart's signature; weeks earlier, back home in Richmond, the passionate 33-year-old had taken a lighter to the February page of his desk calendar and made the then-struggling Rams watch it burn. Now Smart was eating a banana in front of his locker, wrapping up one of the greatest months in sports history, and I couldn't help but ask the first thing that came to mind.
"Is this easily the best day of your life?" I wondered.
Smart -- who'd taken the shorn Alamodome net off his neck and undone the top few buttons of his blue dress shirt -- replied instantly, and with characteristic conviction. "Best day of my life?" he said. "No."
Pressed as to what could possibly rank above the most improbable Final Four berth ever, Smart, who is about 5-foot-10, took another bite of his banana. A sly smile spread across his face.
"Best day of my life?" Smart repeated. He paused dramatically, surveying his assistants and managers, before continuing: "These guys don't even know this ..."
And in seconds, the room would celebrate again.
At this point, in this tournament, we know approximately one thing, and one thing only: Shaka Smart will surprise you.
Let's even leave aside the four-game run to the Elite Eight, during which 11th-seeded VCU went from First Four intruder -- an ostensible cameo for which they were widely maligned -- to a team with scalps from the Pac-10 (USC), Big East (Georgetown), Big Ten (Purdue) and ACC (Florida State). Sunday's upset of Big 12 superpower Kansas, the tournament's lone remaining No. 1 seed, obliterated every sort of conventional wisdom all on its own.
Just how many advantages did the Jayhawks boast against VCU? Well, Kansas had the crowd. (The Alamodome was so loud and so pro-Kansas, Rams forward Jamie Skeen would say, that he often couldn't hear Smart call plays.) Kansas had the talent. (Two potential first-round picks, Thomas Robinson and Josh Selby, were Kansas reserves; VCU had zero players with such NBA pedigree.) Kansas had the odds. (VCU was an 11-point underdog that night, not to mention a 0.03 percent shot to even make the Final Four on Selection Sunday.)
And yet the first half ended with VCU holding a 41-27 lead, and disbelief coated the faces of so many disillusioned hacks on press row, myself included. In fact, I admit that I'd been hedging my reporting all weekend: that afternoon I'd already prepared a file for SI on the two KU senior guards, Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar, and had coordinated a meeting with Tyrel's gracious father, Stacy, at halftime via text message. But now, just 20 minutes in, said file shrunk to a shameful close on my laptop, and at intermission I instead wandered through the hallway outside the Rams locker room, hoping for extra insight.
As it happened, Smart was standing right where I had hoped to linger, customarily huddling and reviewing the game plan with his trio of assistant coaches outside the locker room doors. When they finally entered to meet their charges, I found that at hallway-range I could only overhear the staff's loudest screamers:
"Twenty minutes! Twenty minutes and we're going to the Final Four! They're not done yet!" (KU would ultimately pull within two, 44-46, at 13:13, at which point VCU counterpunched with a 9-2 run from which the Jayhawks never recovered.)
"Balls on the floor? F------ dive on it!" (KU would outrebound VCU, 45-35 -- their only significant statistical advantage of the game.)
"Jamie got 11 shots last half. That's good. But we need more. Feed him! FEED HIM!" (Skeen would wind up with 26 points and 10 rebounds when the horn sounded, outclassing KU's identical Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff. Incidentally, one of the Morrii -- both projected first-rounders -- had told Skeen during the pregame handshake, "Ya'll had a nice run. Now it's time for you to go home.")
Then, finally, all together: "One! Two! Three! KILL!"
After the game, inside the locker room, I would ask various players and assistants about what was said at halftime, and how effective it was, and also which coaches had said those things that bled through the doorway. I was informed, very matter-of-factly, that all the voices I imagined I'd heard belonged to one person: Coach Smart.
One morning two years ago, in a booth at the 43rd Street Deli & Breakfast House in Gainesville, Fla., Norwood Teague sat down for a 6 a.m. interview with Shaka Smart. Smart, then 31, had arrived in town just 10 months prior as a freshly hired assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida, and he wasn't looking to leave town just yet. But he did want to run his own team one day -- "He was always looking forward to the opportunity to have his own program," Smart's wife, Maya, said -- and here came Teague, VCU's athletic director, who'd hired the outgoing Rams coach, Anthony Grant, from Donovan's staff, a few years earlier.
About 45 minutes into his conversation with Smart, Teague wanted to stop the interview. "I almost stopped Shaka and said, 'Look, let's not waste our time. Go back, get Maya, get a plane, let's go. We'll have a press conference,' " Teague said, laughing. "I'm thinking, This is ridiculous. This is our guy." Instead, in a nod to proper protocol, VCU waited all of a day to make a formal offer.
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