Shaka Smart, VCU basketball proving they’re ‘not a flash in the pan’


Coach Shaka Smart led VCU to an undefeated record against the other five major Division I programs in Virginia this season. (Tom Gannam/AP)
March 7

He talked about resolve and the toughest road schedule the Virginia Commonwealth men’s basketball team has ever played. He mentioned what a grind it had been when the Rams secured a season sweep of crosstown rival Richmond on Thursday night.

But then, well aware another program down the road in Charlottesville had stolen the headlines over the past week, VCU Coach Shaka Smart decided to puff out his chest a little bit.

He stated the Rams had just become the first program to go 6-0 in the same year with wins against the other top Division I programs in Virginia: No. 5 Virginia, Virginia Tech, George Mason, Richmond and Old Dominion.

Was he declaring VCU the best team in the state? One reporter wondered aloud if the Rams would still beat the ACC regular season champion Cavaliers these days. VCU bested Virginia, 59-56, on Nov. 12.

“I didn’t mention being the best team in the state. I mentioned beating everyone in the state, which is what these guys did,” Smart shot back. “I’m not comparing them to us. I’m just saying, and there’s no arguing this, these guys have done something . . . no one has ever done.”

Three seasons removed from the Final Four run that captivated the country, Smart has ensured VCU won’t be thought of as simply a one-year wonder. The Rams and their high-octane style of play have become fixtures in today’s college basketball.

Despite being on the outside of the national polls this year, VCU (23-7, 11-4 Atlantic 10) has quietly built another impressive résumé entering Saturday’s regular season finale against St. Bonaventure. It entered the week ranked No. 15 in the Ratings Percentage Index, all but assured of a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.

“It’s not a flash in the pan. This is sustainable,” said associate head coach Mike Rhoades, the lone assistant coach remaining on staff from Smart’s first season as head coach at VCU in 2009-10. “That’s what he’s most proud of.”

But this year’s group, like its 2011 predecessors, has not dominated during the regular season. These Rams have flaws, particularly on offense.

They are the Atlantic 10’s second-highest scoring team but entered this week No. 292 in the country in field goal percentage and are prone to shooting droughts that neutralize the effectiveness of Smart’s vaunted press.

Washington native Treveon Graham (St. Mary’s Ryken) leads the team in scoring (15.5 points per game) and junior Briante Weber is one of the country’s best all-around weapons at 9.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and national-best 3.6 steals per game. But six of VCU’s seven losses have come when it shoots worse than 40 percent from the field.

Its “Havoc” pressure defense is no longer a surprise, but opponents have yet to solve it for more than spurts. VCU once again leads the country in steals and turnovers forced per game, and its past two wins illustrated how effective that defense can be.

The Rams beat then-No. 10 Saint Louis, 67-56, last Saturday despite shooting just 38.7 percent. They then defeated Richmond, 56-50, on the road Thursday with point guards JeQuan Lewis and Weber saddled in foul trouble down the stretch.

Smart called it “a character-building win,” and the latest indication his team is rounding into form just in time for March.

VCU’s current three-game winning streak comes right after a stretch in which it lost three of four games — albeit to Saint Louis, Massachusetts and Saint Joseph’s, all of whom seem poised for NCAA tournament bids this year. The Rams sit in a tie for second place in the Atlantic 10 standings.

But players and coaches alike still call a 76-66 defeat at George Washington on Jan. 14 the turning point for this season.

“We found out we were going to get everyone’s best shot,” Weber added.

This, it would seem, is the biggest difference between now and 2011. Not the looming question of how long Smart plans to stay in Richmond.

After negotiating another new contract this past offseason, he has talked openly about trying to emulate Gonzaga Coach Mark Few, who eschewed the riches of bigger programs to build a perennial power that doesn’t need a power conference to succeed.

Smart’s sincerity will only be confirmed in the coming months and years, but his players believe “he’s bigger than the money,” Weber said.

So a few moments after noting his program’s in-state accomplishments Thursday night, Smart made sure to call Virginia “as good as anyone in the country.” He then offered no prediction as to who would win in a rematch, content to let the next month or so do the talking for him.

“It’s good to fly under the radar because we want to sneak up on people. That’s how they had the Final Four run,” Weber said. “People didn’t know much about them and they were like, ‘V-C-who?’ We’re trying to make another name for ourself. That Final Four run is long past.”

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