Harris: VCU’s Smart applies lessons well
Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Shaka Smart doesn’t want to say he told you so, but he told you so.
“Anybody can beat anybody. That’s college basketball,” Smart said before his mid-major program from the Colonial Athletic Association shocked No. 1 seed Kansas on Sunday to become only the third No. 11 seed in history to advance to the Final Four. “Purdue beat Ohio State a few weeks ago. Ohio State beat George Mason. George Mason came to our place and beat us. Then we beat George Mason in a tournament.
“It really doesn’t matter who we’re playing. Our guys know if we follow the plan and trust each other, good things will happen.”
To understand Shaka Smart the coach — he turns 34 in less than two weeks — you have to appreciate his coaching roots and not focus on his age.
From Florida coach Billy Donovan to California (Pa.) University coach Bill Brown, Smart has applied lessons he absorbed from his veteran mentors and stepped into the spotlight in only his second year as a head coach.
From 1999-2001, Smart was a graduate assistant under Brown after playing one year for Brown at Kenyon College in Ohio.
“He’s grasped different concepts from a lot of different coaches and put it in his own frame,” said Brown, the winningest coach in Cal history. “He only played one year for me, but in that year’s time we spent hours and hours together talking about a game.
“But we also talked about life. I knew right away he was going to be a coach. The next year when I left, we stayed in contact and I told him once he graduated I had a position for him as a graduate assistant so he could get his master’s (degree).”
Upon leaving Cal, Smart crisscrossed the country. From 2001-09, he held jobs at Dayton, Akron, Clemson and Florida. When former Florida assistant Anthony Grant left VCU to become Alabama’s coach, Smart replaced him.
In his first year, VCU won the College Basketball Invitational championship.
A year later, Smart will lead VCU against Butler in Saturday’s national semifinals in Houston.
“I think the thing he understands is you can beat anybody one time,” Brown said of VCU knocking off USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. “He has convinced his team not to accept something secondary when they can have the very best.
“They’re beyond the point of sneaking up on anybody. Teams are prepared for them, and they’re still winning (big). They’re wearing people down. I’m looking at the TV watching their opponents gasping for air.”
Smart is aptly named. He graduated magna cum laude from Kenyon College with a degree in history and earned his master’s in social science at Cal.
Brown said he feels responsible for Smart becoming a coach, because the chairman of the history department at Kenyon College believed he was a professor in the making.
“I think they resented the fact that I convinced him he was going to be a coach,” Brown said.
Smart’s strong educational background has been evident during VCU’s tournament run. CBS reported that Smart spoke with an expert at VCU who specializes in identical twins before facing Kansas’ twins Marcus and Markieff Morris.
The VCU coach used psychology to motivate his players after several ESPN analysts questioned the Rams’ at-large tournament bid.
When Phil Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls, he spliced scenes from “The Wizard of Oz” into game action to show his players they were playing with no heart, no brain and no courage. The Bulls responded by winning their first NBA title.
In Smart’s case, he presented his players with a tape of ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi saying VCU played poor defense. He also showed them a tape of Georgetown’s top players before the Rams’ second-round game.
“Right before the Georgetown game, we made a video with Joe Lunardi talking about how we didn’t play defense with any intensity, and in fact we couldn’t guard him,” Smart said. “We kept playing that video over and over as we were showing video of Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark. They didn’t like it. They grit their teeth, and you can see them ready to fight back.”
VCU routed No. 6 seed Georgetown, 74-56.
“That’s what we were looking for,” Smart said. “Our guys are competitors. They love to respond when people disrespect them, when people doubt them. Our guys realize how good we can be.
“With each win, we’re gaining confidence. The biggest key is when you get to this time of year, you’re playing your best basketball. That’s what we’re doing.”
So should everybody else.