VCU thriving under Smart in A-10
One day, the offers may be too frequent and too alluring, the price tag too tempting.
For now, Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart is not only enjoying what he's doing, but he's also having the time of his life right where he is.
There will be other opportunities to coach in prestigious conferences such as the ACC and Big Ten, but Smart never will have another chance to elevate a program like VCU's among college basketball's elite.
Moving to the Atlantic 10 this season from the Colonial Athletic Association was just what VCU needed, said Smart, whose team faces Duquesne at 7 p.m. Saturday at Consol Energy Center.
“In this league, there are so many high-level teams, so many extremely competitive teams,” said Smart, who guided VCU to the national semifinals against Butler two years ago. “You have the opportunity to play more games that get peoples' attention.
“For a program like ours, it's a great opportunity to measure ourselves against some teams and some programs that have historically been among the best in the country.”
Modesty aside, the first-year additions of VCU and Butler give the Atlantic 10 added credibility.
Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens rank among the elite young coaches in the nation.
A hot coaching commodity, Smart turned down an offer from North Carolina State following his Final Four season. He rebuffed another attractive offer from Illinois after VCU finished 29-7 last season.
In response, VCU increased Smart's salary from $420,000 to about $1.2 million annually.
According to VCU president Michael Rao, raising Smart's salary pays off in marketing the school's name. VCU's reputation as one of the nation's leading universities in public research is enhanced by the visibility created by the basketball program, Rao said.
Under Smart's “Havoc'' playing style featuring full-court pressure and transition offense, VCU advanced to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons.
After reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history, the Rams entered the following season having lost four of their five starters, but they still advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament and set a school record for most wins in a season.
This year, VCU is ranked No. 22 and had won 11 in a row entering Thursday night's game against Saint Joseph's.
“I think it said a lot about our guys last year,” said Smart, who broke into coaching as a California (Pa.) assistant from 1999-2001. “We lost our top six players. Coming back we had a young team. What last year's finish says about our players is they got better and they did a nice job growing as a unit. This year we have a more experienced team, but we play in a better league against better teams night in and night out.”
Smart, 35, is a master at combining tough love with an uncanny ability to connect emotionally with players.
Nothing thrills him more than someone like junior guard Rob Brandenberg — who starred two years ago during VCU's Final Four run — developing under his tutelage.
“These guys are not machines. They're not wind-up dolls. They're human beings with emotions and lives and classes,” said Smart, who played basketball at Kenyon College in Ohio and holds career- and single-season school records in assists. “When I was that age, my head was spinning. I certainly was far from having it figured out — I still am now.”