“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.