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NOT EVERYONE WAS convinced that Smart was the right fit for VCU. He had spent just a year as an assistant to Billy Donovan, the head coach at Florida, and two years under Oliver Purnell at Clemson. But that's it for the big-name coaching experience. He got his start in 1999, working as an assistant for his first-year college coach, Bill Brown, at California University of Pennsylvania before moving on to become director of basketball operations at the University of Dayton in 2001, then moving again to the University of Akron — the Zips — as an assistant in 2003.
When Anthony Grant left for Alabama in the spring of 2009, VCU's players were devastated. In his first season (2006-2007) Grant took the Rams to the NCAA tournament and beat Duke in dramatic fashion. Eric Maynor, now a point guard for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, was a rising star in Richmond but hardly known outside of the Siegel Center. All that changed when he sank the 17-foot shot with 1.8 seconds left, giving VCU the victory over Duke — and Maynor and Grant instant name recognition. Grant preached pressure defense, playing "94 feet," the length of the court, and was an intimidating presence on the sidelines at 6-foot-5. He was tough, and prone to yell and intimidate players during practice, but he also forged close personal ties with them.
"We liked Coach Grant, how his personality, it kind of represented us a little bit," Burgess said in late March, the week before the team departed for the Final Four. "And so, you know, with Coach Smart being different the guys felt like he didn't know what he's talking about, he didn't know what he was doing. So it was a rough transition."
It wasn't just the players. Smart, who's at least six inches shorter than Grant, didn't have much experience and was considered by many in basketball to be a questionable hire. He gave the players more freedom on offense — he encouraged them to take shots Grant didn't allow — but he also wanted more intensity on the defensive end.
Lots of college teams play pressure defense, but not like VCU. The Rams are prone to press an entire game, and at times last year even pressed after missed shots, which is extraordinarily difficult to execute because the game is already in motion, and players are even more apt to be out of position.
"It takes control out of the other coach's hands," Smart says of the press. "It's difficult to prepare for. Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. It takes people out of what they do. It's demoralizing."
When the system works, the Rams easily can jump out to double-digit leads. The goal of Smart's defense is to "wreak havoc," pressuring the opponent into making mistakes, which can lead to easy, quick baskets. But it's also risky. Run the full-court press without discipline and good teams will expose you and also score easily. It takes just one player on the court to be out of position and the press can be broken.
"I would call it controlled chaos." says Bavery, now head coach at Middleton High School in Wisconsin. He recently reconnected with Smart, coming to VCU for a visit in mid-October to watch a few practices, pick up some pointers. The press philosophy, he says, takes a complete buy-in from the players and requires patience. During a recent game his high-school team was losing by 12, and then went on a 16-1 run and won. "You're going to get some runs," he says, "you just never know when."
And that was perhaps the biggest misconception about Smart. The combination of players' darting chaotically around the court and the excitable coach's running up and down the sidelines can give the appearance that Smart isn't in control of his team. Grant, who often stands arms-crossed, glowering in the coach's box, is just the opposite.
Smart had some success early, but he wasn't nearly as well received, Teague recalls. After a game in early December 2009 at the Siegel Center, Teague remembers the heckling — and the team was 6-1.
"We're walking off the court, and I happen to be walking behind the team, and a couple people yelled over at me, 'Hey man, you need to get a new head coach,'" Teague recalls. "And we had just beaten Rhode Island. Granted, we let the lead slip a little bit at the end, but Rhode Island is really good."
The Rams began to jell at the end of Smart's first season, during the College Basketball Invitational, which they won. In his second season, the Rams could blow teams away, or get blown away. Against UR in mid-December 2010 at the Robins Center, the Spiders thumped the Rams, who fell behind 40-17 at intermission and lost by 12. After rattling off nine wins in a row, VCU lost five of its last eight games leading up to the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. The team caught fire in the tournament, but ended up losing to Old Dominion in the championship game. Coach Smart didn't even gather his players on Selection Sunday, the day the NCAA tournament brackets were announced. The late-season wane had all but doomed their chances.
Of course, they got in. The Rams made the field of 68 teams, but were widely dismissed and derided by basketball analysts. Few gave them much of a chance of advancing out of the "first four" — two play-in games that were added last year.
"What I think about is after the USC game, how happy we were," Teague says. "I remember being down in the floor [in Dayton, Ohio,] with a lot of our staff. ... It was if we had just accomplished everything we had set out to do in some way. And we had no idea what was getting ready to happen."
DESPITE ALL OF the adulation that comes with making it to the Final Four — the celebrity, the job offers, the recruiting prowess — what haunts Smart is how close they were. VCU had beaten the best team remaining in the tournament, Kansas, and the three remaining teams — Butler, Kentucky and Connecticut — were good but not exactly juggernauts. If thousands flooded Broad Street after the Kansas victory in San Antonio, just imagine winning the national championship.
"I think about it every day," Smart says.
He may be bubbly and motivational, but he's also a fierce competitor, says Mike Jones, one of Smart's former assistants who left in the summer to take the head coaching job at Radford University. Smart likes to talk trash, and is known for running out on the floor during practices to challenge players — sometimes personally. In the culture of hoops, where trash is always talked, this only endears Smart to his players.
"Shak's a trash-talking dude," Jones says, recalling one of their early staff games. "It might have been the first game we played. He told one guy he wasn't a good shooter. So every time he would get the ball, Shak would say, 'Back off him, he can't shoot.' That was a big part of our staff morale. He would lead the charge."
The lasting image for Jones was when the team and coaches came out of the tunnel in Houston, to take the court against Butler. After the team runs out, it's customary for the coaches to walk out together. Smart was so pumped up for the game that he left them in the dust in a combination walk-sprint on his toes. He couldn't wait to get out there.
"He's so fired up he leaves us. He takes off. He left [assistant coach Kyle] Getter and I in the dust. It was that confident, 'I can't wait until tip-off,'" Jones says. "He could have beat me running just by his walk he was going so fast. It's probably the best image I have of the Final Four, watching him sprint away from me and Kyle."
Smart has a swagger and a hitch in his step that fits neatly with the aura of the Rams, especially when the team plays at home in the Siegel Center. During last month's game against Richmond, the arena rocks like a raucous church revival. Since both made it — remarkably so — to the Sweet Sixteen in March (UR lost to Kansas), the Dec. 9 game has been circled on the hoops calendar.
VCU's popular pep band, the Peppas, leads the charge with pop tunes and swaying tubas while the student section boos and hisses creative, but sometimes vulgar, chants ("You suck" — then an about-face, hands tickling imaginary testes — "baaalls!")
Seating more than 7,600 people, the Siegel Center features pullout bleachers, like a high-school gymnasium, but the stands lay flatter than in typical arenas, so fans sit shoulder-to-shoulder, knees-to-back. The cheerleaders give away burritos, stuffed animals cascade down from the rafters with parachutes, there's a "havoc cam" surveying the crowd. The place rocks and sways, and reaches an ear-piercing pitch when the Rams pull away at the end. As the havoc sets in — the pressure defense is relentless — the Rams finally go on one of their patented runs, and wind up beating the Spiders by 22. It's exhausting to watch.
"To me, it was the most excitement I've felt in that building," says Stuart Siegel, the building's namesake and longtime VCU supporter, who attends every game. The place can get downright raucous, and has earned the Rams the nickname, Broad Street Bullies. "I don't particularly like that word," Siegel says. "But I think it's fair."
That the energy from March Madness has spilled over into this season is no accident. By staying put, Teague says Smart validated VCU basketball and, perhaps inadvertently, Richmond. That Chris Mooney, the coach at UR, also signed an extension after the season was no less significant.
If Smart had a difficult time initially selling the players he inherited to practice harder, play harder, and push the tire, he has no such problem now. After the Final Four run, this year's younger team — only one senior, Burgess, has returned to the starting lineup — is playing with even more intensity. In the last month, the Rams have rattled off seven straight victories, by an average margin of 16 points. While less experienced, Smart acknowledges that this year's team has the potential to be even better on defense.
"I haven't seen a team play that hard in a long time," Teague says. "I think that's why our kids play so hard now this year, because they know he's proven himself."
And practices are as brutal as ever. During the December win streak, they grew longer and more difficult. "When you win games, there can be a tendency to get complacent," Smart says of his rationale. "Development doesn't always occur on a linear path. It's not always that simple."
And that may be Smart's greatest gift. Getting to the Final Four, shocking the country — well, becoming the greatest little team that could in NCAA history just isn't enough. So he came back, only this time with a bigger tire.
"Last year it was probably an SUV tire," says Nixon, the senior guard from last year's team. "This year it's an 18-wheeler." S
Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, Style misspelled Gambier, Ohio, where Kenyon College is located.