RICHMOND — A prime opportunity was heading straight for Virginia Commonwealth freshman guard Briante Weber. A South Florida player, leaping out of bounds, slapped the ball directly to Weber, giving him and his Rams an apparent advantage. But Weber started moving before securing the ball, which bounced off his hands and out of bounds.
VCU Coach Shaka Smart watched it all and shook his head. At that moment, part of him surely wondered what many have pondered for the past eight months: Smart came back for this?
After guiding VCU — a mid-major program from the Colonial Athletic Association — on an astonishing run to the Final Four in March, Smart was the talk of the college basketball world. Multiple Atlantic Coast Conference schools pursued Smart for their men’s basketball teams’ coaching vacancies, and other programs showed interest in Smart’s services, as well.
But Smart, 34, elected to remain at VCU, coaching his players and building his program in an environment in which motivation is never in short supply. The Rams will enter Sunday’s BB&T Classic matchup against George Washington with an unspectacular 4-3 record, but also with more stature — and more promise — than anyone would have thought possible before last spring’s fairy tale run.
“Yeah, definitely I had a bit of concern” that Smart would leave VCU, said senior forward Bradford Burgess, who had just completed his freshman season when the Rams’ previous coach, Anthony Grant, departed for Alabama. “But what he said to us was he wouldn’t feel the gratification of what we did last season if he just went ahead and left for somewhere else. He wanted to continue and build off the success we had last year.”
So here, as an example, is why Smart returned to VCU: A few minutes after Weber’s turnover, Smart was holding both fists over his head. Burgess had just dunked to extend VCU’s lead to 13, but that didn’t keep the Rams from employing their vaunted full-court press.
VCU characterizes its brand of basketball as “havoc,” and Smart adds to that atmosphere from the sideline during live play. He claps madly and stomps defiantly. He crouches into a defensive stance and shuffles his feet up and down his team’s bench area, imploring the Rams to do as he does.
Here, too, is why Smart remains in Richmond: Against South Florida, sophomore forward Juvonte Reddicstole the ball, and 10 seconds later, sophomore guard Rob Brandenberg made a three-pointer. Like Weber, Reddic and Brandenberg are Smart’s recruits. After winning last season with a cast largely constructed by Grant, Smart wants to mold the players he brought to campus to be equally successful.
“As a young coach, your advantage or your strength always has to be enthusiasm and energy,” Smart said. “That’s what I tried to emphasize last year, and that’s who I am this year. Nothing has changed from that standpoint. Maybe the way that I’m treated sometimes is a little bit different, but that comes with the territory.”
Following the Final Four run, North Carolina State visited with Smart in Richmond and offered him a job. Smart declined and signed a new eight-year contact to remain at VCU.
When Gary Williams, Maryland’s longtime Maryland coach, suddenly retired in May, the Terrapins wanted to fly Smart to College Park for an interview. Smart declined that opportunity, as well.
“I didn’t pursue any jobs,” Smart said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere. I just felt like at VCU, we have a great opportunity with the players that we have. We have a young team. We’ve got a chance to get these guys better going into the next two, three years. I think we can do some really good things. I didn’t feel like it was right to leave my players and our program here. It feels like we just got here.”
The Rams in many ways are starting over again this season, having lost four seniors from the Final Four team. This group doesn’t possess the same degree of confidence. Smart has to remind many of his current players to keep shooting aggressively, even if the shots aren’t falling, something he rarely had to do last season.
But Smart says he enjoys the process, as well as his current situation. He and his wife just had their first child (a baby girl named Zora) in September.
During home games, Smart works in front of raucous crowds at the 7,600-seat Siegel Center, which has been sold out for a school-record six straight games. Promotional T-shirts are tossed into the stands during the middle of play, and well-to-do fans can watch from the new strip of luxury boxes on the second level.
By the end of VCU’s 69-46 throttling of South Florida, Smart has another victory over a team from a high-profile conference. But Smart likes to quote Shakespeare’s line that what’s won is done and that the soul’s joy lies in the doing.
“I’m looking forward to trying to keep doing,” Smart said.