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.”