Shaka Smart arrived at Akron for his first day on the job in May 2003 expecting to grab lunch with a new colleague he’d only heard stories about. Instead, Keith Dambrot introduced him to a phenom.
Dambrot and Smart, both Akron assistant coaches at the time, drove to a local recreation center, and before long a silver Hummer pulled up. Out walked LeBron James, Dambrot’s former pupil at St. Vincent-St. Mary High who was on the verge of becoming the first pick in the NBA draft.
“Keith and I proceed to work him out for the next two months. I take that back: I helped Keith,” said Smart, now the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth, as he prepared to take on Dambrot and 12th-seeded Akron in the NCAA tournament first round on Thursday night. “I didn’t really say much the first few times because I was in awe.”
That’s saying something, given Smart’s celebrity in the college basketball world these days. He has turned down several overtures from major-conference schools the past two offseasons, becoming a revered figure in Richmond since taking the Rams to the Final Four in 2011 and following it up with a run to the round of 32 last year.
Smart said he stayed for the players, that he was uncomfortable with bolting town at the first sign of success. “I want to continue to be challenged and stretched, and at VCU I have that,” he explained Thursday.
But even he couldn’t have foreseen the transformation the Rams have undergone since their initial foray into the national spotlight.
They joined a new conference — the Atlantic 10 — this season after 17 years in the Colonial Athletic Association, in large part because of the growing acclaim of the basketball program. Their home games, meanwhile, have become events, featuring the sort of raucous environment — VCU’s student section has been dubbed “The Rowdy Rams” — few in college basketball can match.
The Siegel Center has been sold out for 35 straight games, dating back to the end of the 2010-11 season.
And after sweating out the bubble to make the NCAA tournament in 2011 and 2012, VCU has shed the underdog role. The Rams were ranked in the AP poll during the regular season for the first time in 30 years and enter Thursday as the No. 5 seed in the South Region despite finishing with a worse record (26-8) than the past two seasons.
It’s the result of what Smart calls “the best regular season schedule VCU has ever played,” with games against Duke, Memphis and Missouri. Some have even predicted a return trip to the Final Four, a sentiment Smart can only laugh about.
“It shows people change their mind a lot,” he said. “Now it’s kind of cool to pick a non-BCS team to advance in the tournament. . . . Before, you looked like an idiot when you said that.”
Despite Smart’s increased Q rating — when asked about President Obama knowing Smart on Wednesday, forward Jevonte Reddic insisted “he may be a celebrity . . . but he’s still the same Coach Smart to us” — his “Havoc” style of play remains the same. Built around a swarming full-court press, VCU ranked first in the country in steals and forced turnovers this season. It’s a system tailor-made for NCAA tournament success given how little time opposing teams have to prepare.
The past two years have also given Smart a team full of tournament-tested players, led by leading scorer and former All-Met Treveon Graham (St. Mary’s Ryken). When the Rams tip off Thursday, their upperclassmen will have tied the program record for the most NCAA tournament games, a mark set only a year ago by senior Bradford Burgess. That, though, hasn’t changed their mind-set.
“We still got things to prove, just like we did two years [when] nobody picked us,” said guard Darius Theus, who along with guard Troy Daniels are the first two seniors to have played under Smart all four years. The success of the past two years “gave us a lot of confidence, just to show anything is possible this time of year.”
This year’s NCAA tournament, though, will be a wholly different experience for Smart, if only because of his first opponent. He worked with Dambrot for one season at Akron, and when Dambrot was elevated to head coach in 2004, Smart remained on his staff for two more years.
The two talk almost daily during the season, and Smart refers to Dambrot as his “best friend in coaching, and I don’t have a lot of friends in coaching.” They’re so close that Dambrot spoke at Smart’s wedding.
Smart even filmed a 45-second video ahead of Akron’s appearance in the Mid-American Conference tournament earlier this month. “It was all about how much I believe in their team and how good they could be,” Smart said.
“I don’t regret doing that. I’m glad that they won, but we’ve definitely had some candid conversations about our teams.”
Added Dambrot: “We’ll be estranged and then we’ll re-bond. The bad thing is he could coach our team and I could coach their team. That’s how much we know about each other.”
It won’t be the first time the two have squared off. In 2011, ESPN matched VCU and Akron together for a “Bracketbuster” game. Last year, the Rams had to make a return trip to Akron and needed a lay-in by Theus with one second remaining in overtime to score a dramatic 76-75 victory.
By Monday, after the initial Selection Sunday shock of facing each other wore off, the two coaches spoke again. Smart joked that Dambrot had already begun playing mind games with him when he noted that Akron “hadn’t even worked on the press” that day in practice.
But if Smart was feeling any anxiety Thursday, he showed few signs. He ended VCU’s open practice session at the Palace of Auburn Hills with a loose-ball drill, and everyone from players to managers to assistant coaches dived on the floor for the exercise. Not to be outdone, Smart did the same, hurling his body without abandon onto the court as his players shouted their approval.
“Best friend or not,” Theus said. “he wants to win.”
Jason Reid: Georgetown’s Starks finally gets the point
Graphic: Tracee Hamilton’s NCAA bracket