Shaka Smart Returns to the Stu as Rams Fans Hope Against tough Odds 

click to enlarge Shaka Smart returns to Richmond on Dec. 5, when his Texas Longhorns play the VCU Rams, coached by Mike Rhoades. The game will broadcast from the Siegel Center on ESPN2.

photo courtesy VCU

Shaka Smart returns to Richmond on Dec. 5, when his Texas Longhorns play the VCU Rams, coached by Mike Rhoades. The game will broadcast from the Siegel Center on ESPN2.

The much-anticipated matchup at the Siegel Center, between the University of Texas Longhorns and the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams, will tip off at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 5. It will be a rare opportunity for VCU's men's basketball team to play host to a highly regarded, out-of-conference opponent. Beyond that, the history of the two head coaches imbues this contest with a back story good enough for a TV movie — or at least the national broadcast scheduled on ESPN2.

The Longhorns are coached by Shaka Smart, 40, who holds the all-time record for wins as a VCU head coach. Smart's Rams won 163 times in his six seasons (163-56). After five consecutive appearances in the NCAA Division I Tournament, in the spring of 2015 Smart was hired away from VCU by Texas — a member of the Big 12 Conference. At this writing, Smart is 4-2 this year in Austin. 

The Rams are coached by Mike Rhoades, 45, whose VCU team has won half of the six games it has played at this writing. Rhoades was Smart's assistant for five years (2009-14). Rhoades then served as Rice University's head coach for three seasons, before signing with VCU in March.

During VCU's storied run to the NCAA Final Four, in 2011, while Smart was charming a national television audience, talking about his Havoc style, Rhoades was the guy back in the gym urging the Rams to go faster. And faster. To the delight of many fans, both coaches favor fast.

VCU and Texas have met twice before. In January 1992, in the Richmond Coliseum, a high-scoring face-off finished at Texas 105, VCU 94. Then in 1993, it went the Rams' way — VCU 66, Texas 60 — in Austin.

Most of the pro scouts in attendance will have their eyes on the Longhorns' freshman forward and center, Mohamed Bamba, who's expected to be a sure-thing pick in the next National Basketball Association draft. 

Bamba stands at an even 7 feet. His towering presence can be expected to have a stifling effect on the Rams inside game. If he doesn't block the shot or grab the rebound, junior forward Dylan Osetkowski, who's 6-foot-9, is likely to snatch it. To answer that pair, Rhoades likely will start senior forward 6-foot-8 Justin Tillman and senior forward 6-foot-7 Khris Lane.
Both teams have been starting three guards. Both like to push the pace, so the ball-handling by those guards may be a key to winning. Conditioning will be a factor.

For what it's worth, Texas was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12's preseason poll. Likewise, VCU was seen as the fourth best team in its conference, the Atlantic 10.

Simply put, coach Rhoades has his sights set on doing what Smart did twice at the Stuart Siegel Center. When Jeff Capel III left VCU to coach the University of Oklahoma in 2006, there was a clause in his contract that called for the departing coach's new school to play VCU in a home-and-home series.

Thus Capel brought his 17th ranked Sooners to Richmond to play the Rams in 2009. The underdogs pulled off the upset: VCU 82, Oklahoma 69.

Then the coach who followed Capel, Anthony Grant, stayed three years and also left for a supposedly better job — this time at Alabama. Since he had the same contract with VCU about a home-and-home series, Grant brought his Crimson Tide team to Richmond in December 2012. Again, the returning coach lost to the home team: VCU 73, Alabama 54.

In his playing days, Shaka Smart was a point guard at Kenyon College of Division III. Although Smart excelled, the program was not a winner then. In his senior year he was named to the All-North Coast Athletic Conference team. Prior to his VCU stint as head coach, Smart served as an assistant at four universities. His time on Billy Donovan's Florida bench as an assistant catapulted him into the head coaching position at VCU.

As a player, Rhoades was a two-time D-III All-American at Lebanon Valley College. USA Today named him that division's player of the year in 1995. The next season he began his coaching career at Randolph-Macon College as an assistant for Hal Nunnally. In 1999 Nunnally retired and Rhoades became the Yellow Jackets head coach for 10 years. 

The statistics and the tale of the tape don't favor the Rams. The oddsmakers will surely make the Longhorns the favorites. However, there are some numbers that may matter. In its 19th year at the Siegel Center, VCU's record is 237-37. Smart is well-aware of that eye-popping stat and he knows the atmosphere at the Stu will be at a rock concert level of intensity.

To win, with their advantages, maybe all the Longhorns have to do is not get rattled. However, this season they have played at home and at a holiday tournament. Thus, this will be there first real away game for a very young team.

Of the eight Texas players who have averaged the most minutes of playing time, there are three juniors, one sophomore and four freshman. Looking at VCU the same way, there are three seniors, four sophomores and one freshman.

For VCU to win, it needs to get steadier play from its point guards. The Rams must also have a good night shooting 3-pointers. Around the backboards they need to box out like mean dogs protecting a bone.

Then, if the game is tight in the last 3 or 4 minutes, the enthusiasm of the Peppas, who sound better than ever, and the revved up VCU fans could fill the room enough to inspire the Rams to send Shaka back to Austin shaking his head. Yes, it will be a tall order, but don't forget, it has happened before. Capel and Grant can testify to that.

VCU has benefited greatly from its string of excellent coaches, from Capel to Grant to Smart to Rhoades. Although it's bound to feel strange for them to face one another as foes, this marquee matchup is one both Smart and Rhoades are sure to relish. S


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