One week into the NCAA basketball tournament, the rising star is Virginia Commonwealth University coach Shaka Smart, who led his team to surprisingly easy victories over USC, Georgetown and Purdue. With Smart emphasizing full-court defense, team speed and unselfish play, VCU has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history.
Imagine how foolish ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi must feel for saying last week VCU didn’t belong in the 68-team tournament. Smart and his players used the putdown as motivation. “We sat down and watched video of Joe Lunardi saying we couldn’t guard him,” Smart said. “Our guys responded to that, obviously.”
VCU (26-11) had to earn respect because it plays in the unheralded Colonial Athletic Association. But in this era of elite athletes leaving college early in pursuit of NBA riches, there are no dominant teams. That makes coaching more important than ever, and the 33-year-old Smart is living up to his surname. He began preparing for a coaching career while playing guard at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he was named North Coast Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year. After getting his bachelor’s degree in history, he earned a master’s in social science from California University in Pennsylvania. He was an assistant coach at Akron, Clemson, and Florida, and when he took the VCU job in 2009, he said, “We are going to wreak havoc on our opponent’s psyche and their plan of attack.”
Friday night in San Antonio, the VCU Rams will try to wreak havoc upon Leonard Hamilton’s Florida State Seminoles in a matchup of the only African-American head coaches left in March Madness. The winner will likely face Kansas (President Obama’s pick to win the NCAA title) for the Southwest Region championship and a trip to the Final Four.
VCU will be an underdog against Florida State, and an even bigger one against Kansas. But Smart has convinced his players that their success is no fluke. “It really doesn’t matter who we’re playing against,” he said. “They know if they follow the plan and they trust each other, good things will happen.”
Even if the Rams’ championship dreams are dashed this weekend, Smart should be a hot commodity. Bigger schools that offer coaches more money and wider exposure would be wise to contact Smart.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
(Photo by AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)