CHICAGO — On the second day of March, Virginia Commonwealth Coach Shaka Smart stood next to a trash can as he gathered his players on the team’s practice court before the start of a workout. The Rams had gone 3-5 in February, and their chances of earning an NCAA tournament bid appeared grim.
Holding a desk calendar, Smart ripped off the sheet that contained the month of February, took out a lighter and lit one of the sheet’s bottom corners. Pieces of burnt paper flaked onto the court as Smart lowered the sheet into the canister. Although his point was clear, Smart voiced it anyway: those days are through; we’re moving forward.
VCU, which earned a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament, has won four of five games since Smart’s pyrotechnics, including an 18-point upset victory Friday over sixth-seeded Georgetown.
Thanks in large part to the confidence Smart breeds into his players, the Rams (25-11) find themselves on the verge of uncharted territory. They will take on third-seeded Purdue (26-7) on Sunday with the chance to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.
“He always finds a way to connect what’s going on, and he does it in a way that, whether it be through film or on the court or having someone come in and speak to the team, that just resonates with those guys,” VCU assistant coach Mike Jones said. “He makes a connection with them and what’s going on in real life and how they’re thinking.
“Everyone’s thinking, ‘Man, we didn’t finish the way we wanted to.’ But guess what? That stuff is in the past. So he comes up with this unique way to show them that it’s in the past, and that gets their minds focused on what’s next.”
At 33, Smart is the second-youngest coach in the NCAA tournament, and consequently, Jones said, he is better than most in the profession at relating to the mind-set of his players. Smart constantly searches for unique motivational tactics, but his general disposition and the style of play he promotes does the job about as well as any wisdom-infused quote.
Smart and his assistants are known to play pickup games with one another, and when the players walk by and see their head coach calling his shots and talking trash, a pervading sense of buoyancy washes over them. “It’s just something that moves naturally from him to the team,” Jones said.
On the court, Smart employs a defensive philosophy the team describes as “havoc.” The Rams press almost constantly on defense and run the floor with a perpetual green light to shoot when open on offense.
“Coach gives us a lot of freedom,” senior guard Joey Rodriguez said. “He doesn’t let us look over our shoulder.”
VCU finished the regular season fourth in the Colonial Athletic association. In the conference tournament opener, senior forward Jamie Skeen hit a buzzer-beating layup to lead the Rams over Drexel. Then they beat George Mason — a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament — by 16 in the semifinals. VCU lost to Old Dominion — a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament — by five in the CAA title game, but the players felt that three-game stretch was when they turned the corner.
Then came Selection Sunday, when it was announced VCU would face Southern California in one of the play-in games, the destination for the last four teams worthy of at-large berths. The players listened as national analysts repeatedly questioned their inclusion in the field of 68, and they simmered. So did their coach.
“We had a game earlier this year where an assistant coach came out in the newspaper and said that we couldn’t defend, and we went on that game and we held that team to under 50 points,” Smart said. “So I learned very early in the year about our team that they like a challenge, especially if it’s posed by somebody that they can perceive as the enemy, or the opposition.”
Before the Rams had lunch Friday, they were shown clips of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi stating that VCU could not defend him. That sound bite was played repeatedly as images of Georgetown guards Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark flashed across the screen.
VCU held the Hoyas to 38.5 percent shooting on Friday night and allowed them to convert on only 5 of 26 (19.2 percent) three-point attempts.
“You just want to go out there and not only prove him wrong, but prove everybody wrong,” freshman guard Rob Brandenberg said. “You feel like it’s just us against the world, and that’s just the mentality we’ve been having since we came in the tournament, because last Sunday everybody was criticizing us for even being in the tournament.
“We just wanted to come and play with a chip on our shoulder and prove that we belong. Now we just want to keep it rolling.”