Energy is a valuable commodity in college basketball and it’s mandatory for college coaches who want to make it in the biz. Shaka Smart has energy in bundles. The kind that makes you hope that he drinks decaf.
For me, the most enduring image of the 2011 NCAA Tournament was watching Smart amp up his team prior to a tournament game, by participating in the “Ironman Drill.” The defensive gauntlet had Smart denying a post entry pass, then racing over to the low block where he’d take the charge from a driving VCU ball handler, bouncing back onto his feet, sprinting to dive for the loose ball on the wing before finally darting over to the opposite sideline where he leapt out of bounds to tap the ball in.
At the end of it, Shaka looked like he wanted to suit up in a jersey and guard Josh Selby. Smart’s exuberance even carried over into his halftime speech during their tournament win over Kansas, when he dove for a phantom loose ball.
It also encompassed the perpetual energy exhibited by VCU on both sides of the ball. In a 2011 New York Times profile on Shaka Smart, University of Akron head coach, Keith Dambrot gave Smart higher praise than Catholics give the Pope.
“I’ve only seen two sure things in my time: LeBron as a player and Shaka as a coach,” Dambrot said.
While calling Smart the LeBron James of collegiate coaching may sound like prisoner-of-the-moment hyperbole from a well-intentioned peer, Dambrot’s words carry more weight than Mr. Universe. Like James, Smart’s beginnings are rooted in Ohio. Dambrot coached the Akron native during his freshman and sophomore seasons at St. Vincent-St. Mary. In 2003, Dambrot served as an assistant on the Zips staff alongside Smart. Prior to his apprenticeship in Akron, Smart was Dayton’s Director of Basketball Operations.
Ignoring the major programs beating down the door for his services hasn’t been difficult. After all, Smart rejected Harvard, Yale and Brown after pitching a near-perfect game on his SATs. Instead, Smart boogied on down to Division III Kenyon College, where he matched his high school deed of becoming the university’s all-time assists leader.
Now, Smart is a hoop whiz kid on the sidelines that schemes, game plans and views the floor from the unique angles that James gets to exhibit in a jersey and shorts.
Instead of dropping 20,000 points at a record pace, Smart became the second-youngest coach to reach 100 victories. Although he has yet to be mentioned among college hoops royalty as often as King James has, he is named after Zulu chief, Shaka Zulu.
Smart’s coaching axioms were laid out from the jump.
“We are going to wreak havoc on our opponents’ psyche and their plan of attack.” Smart proclaimed at his introductory news conference. Smart wants kleptomaniacs on his roster. All they do is snatch and run. Smart recruits unheralded prospects that fit his system and cover the court like a glove on a hand. Smart wants his players to get their fingerprints all over their spherical weapon of choice.
Smart’s Havoc strategy is created to terrorize ball handlers.
This season, he finally has all of the players for his system. VCU is 18th in points per possession, 13th in points per game, first in steals per game and ranked in the top 25. Treveon Graham, Juvonte Reddic, Troy Daniels and Rob Brandenberg are the lone players averaging double figures in points per game, but the Rams devastating attack is led by its seventh leading scorer, Briante Weber.
The sophomore sixth man was named A-10 Defensive Player of the Year after finishing sixth nationally in steals, but received no other Division I offers. To put Weber’s John Dillinger-like stick-up ability in perspective, keep in mind that the five players averaging more steals than him play at least 10 more minutes per game. On the rare occasion that he has stood in front of the opening curtain, Weber has set the tone. On the first possession of VCU’s 32-point win over Western Kentucky, Weber set if off by intercepting a bounce pass and flushing it home.
Daniels is the deep threat who’s taking 70 percent of shots from three-point range, and point guard Darius Theus is the designated stopper in addition to being Smart’s first VCU recruit. In year one, Smart coached VCU to the CBI postseason championship and in year two, he led VCU from the last four in to the Final Four. Last season, they hung up their final automatic-bid, CAA Championship Tournament. This may be Smart’s best squad yet.
The greatest concern at VCU is that one day, college basketball royalty, with a vacant opening on its throne, coaxes Smart away with an exorbitant salary offer. But if you think Smart is simply biding his time and raising his monetary value until the perfect job opens up, you might be waiting until Tupac’s resurrection. This is personal for Smart. After Bill Brown, the head coach who recruited him to Kenyon College, departed following his freshman season, Smart was deeply impacted.
“That broke my heart,” Smart confessed to ESPN.
Meanwhile, Smart’s VCU predecessors Anthony Grant and Jeff Capel have struggled under the radar at major conference schools such as Oklahoma and Alabama. Grant has created one of the stingiest defenses in college basketball, but in his first return trip to Richmond, the Crimson Tide got whacked by 19 and pick-pocketed 11 times. Not to say that Smart is afraid to coach in a bigger conference, but the grass isn’t always greener, so there is hope that he’ll stay for the long haul. For example, last summer, Smart spurned Illinois. Not to mention, there is a precedent for staying at a smaller school, as the current number one team in the country is showing us. Across the country, Gonzaga, which is hidden away in a tiny section of Washington State, has created a best-case scenario program.
It’s too far from D.C. to tap into the DMV talent pipeline, but in this one-and-done era of emerging mid-major powers, VCU has the most important tool it needs to join Gonzaga as a Shangri-La of collegiate hoops. Smart’s brightest long-term move may be to tap into the energy he’s created around the VCU program and keep constructing his Shakaville empire. From that perch, anything can happen.