An extensive interview with Coach Smart after the Rams beat Kansas. An excerpt: “At what point or was there a point that you thought you could make a deep run into this tournament? COACH SMART: As soon as we got picked.” Heck yeah!
Here’s a long but charming interview from David Worlock (Associate Director of the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship) with Coach Smart after VCU’s stunning win over Kansas. Final Four here we come!
David Worlock: Shaka, you and Brad, there’s a statistic yesterday, you’re combined ages are less than that of Jim Calhoun. Wanted to see what you know about him and what you think it is about the two of you that have allowed you to have success at such a young age.
Coach Smart: Well, he’s had a whole lot more success than I have, first of all, to take Butler to backtoback Final Fours and the national championship game last year, what an unbelievable feat.
I think in terms of what we have in common, we both come from extremely humble backgrounds as players. He played Division III basketball, I played Division III basketball. When you’re not a bigtime Division I player, it is extremely difficult to get into Division I coaching. You have to work your way up, prove yourself every step of the way. I think Brad did that. What he did is he worked his way up every step of the way at one university.
For me, I went to a lot of different stops, but in a similar way worked my way up.
I think what we have in common is certainly humble beginnings, work ethic, and an understanding, particularly at our young age, there’s a whole lot left to learn.
David Worlock: Do you see you guys as somewhat of a changing of the guard or the next generation, you guys might be the next generation of bigname coaches or great coaches in basketball?
Coach Smart: Not really. I think there’s great coaches in college basketball. There’s been great coaches in college basketball at every age. I was fortunate to work for Billy Donovan. He was the hot young name when he got the Florida job. Took them to the national championship game in 2000. Now people talk about him as one of the best coaches in the country. And he truly is.
He’s not the young guy anymore. He’s a mediumaged guy. I don’t think it’s so much a generational thing. I think it’s about whose programs are able to excel at this time of year. This is obviously when you get the most attention. It still comes back to the players. I don’t care how good you are as a coach; if your guys aren’t playing with a clear head, if they’re not going out there and executing the game plan, nobody is going to be talking about you.
David Worlock: Coach Smart, Brad said you and he go back to knowing each other from when you were an assistant at Akron. Last year he went through sort of what you are going through now. He exploded on the scene, was a bigname coach, decided to stay at Butler. Did you study what he went through last year? Any type of guidelines for you this year?
Coach Smart: Well, I wouldn’t say I studied it. I certainly was well aware of it. He’s somebody that I’ve admired since he became the head coach at Butler. He’s just done such an unbelievable job of taking an already very good program to much, much greater heights, which is not easy to do.
But I think the way he handled last year with terrific grace and humility is exactly the way any coach should go about it, whether it’s your first time in the Final Four or whether you’ve been in the Final Four multiple times. That’s something I definitely noticed last year and something I hope to emulate.
David Worlock: He was a hot prospect. He stayed at Butler. You’re a hot prospect already. Do you even think about that at this point or are you focusing on 6:09 p.m. Saturday?
Coach Smart: Definitely the latter. I know that question, as I said, kind of comes with the territory of being in the NCAA tournament, particularly at this stage. But if you can put yourself in any coach’s shoes just for a second and think about the two options there, do I dwell on what might happen down the road or do I put 1,000% of my energy into what is an unbelievably special opportunity in front of me and our team right now, then it’s an easy choice.
I’m definitely focused on Saturday.
David Worlock: At what point or was there a point that you thought you could make a deep run into this tournament?
Coach Smart: As soon as we got picked.
David Worlock: You felt good coming into the tournament and how you were playing?
Coach Smart: I really did, yeah. We had a rough month of February. Really had some games that did not go our way. We had a couple games we did not play well. We came back and played better, but dropped a couple close ones at the end of the month. We really needed to turn the page.
We burned up the month of February. We burned the calendar literally, then we played much, much better in our conference tournament. Really played well. We were able to end the nation’s longest winning streak in the conference semifinals against George Mason. We came up just short in the conference championship game.
We knew we had turned the corner as a team and we were playing much better. So we felt like if we got the opportunity to get in the NCAA tournament, we certainly could make a run.
David Worlock: What has it been like to watch your team’s confidence grow game by game?
Coach Smart: It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been great fun. To be honest, the confidence has been extremely high throughout the whole run. It’s not as though we only felt we could win the first game, then we needed that win to build our confidence for the second game.
Our guys, no matter who we go out there against, they believe we can win, they believe we’re going to win. That was put to the test yesterday against Kansas. The day before in the media session, people basically asked us why we were even showing up for the game because they had determined it was going to be Kansas that won the Southwest Regional.
Fortunately our guys didn’t agree with that sentiment and they’re the ones that went out there on the court and played.
David Worlock: When you think to your earlier point about where you and Brad are and the success you’re having early in your careers, do you think it shifts the way ADs will look at guys in your position in giving guys opportunities earlier in your careers?
Coach Smart: You’re talking about hiring assistant coaches?
David Worlock: Hiring assistant coaches or naming a guy in your position a head coach at a program like the one you’re at now?
Coach Smart: Yeah, I think it does. There’s a phenomenal program that is actually partly run out of VCU here called The Villa 7 Consortium. I think that has shifted the mindset of a lot of athletic directors. They connect about 50 or so of the upandcoming assistant coaches around the country that come from some of the top programs with athletic directors every year. I was fortunate to be a part of it.
But I think what those sorts of things do, they build relationships. I think through the relationship that I had with VCU and with Norwood Teague, he had a comfort level with me. He believed I could come in here with a good coaching staff and we could be successful. If he didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
The success that some young coaches are having right now, that only builds on opportunities for future guys.
David Worlock: You made a mention of your path being different than Brad’s. Do you think there’s a method that serves any coach well in terms of having success early in his career and being in your early 30s standing where you’re standing?
Coach Smart: There’s a method but there’s no one formula. I think you can do it the way Brad did it. You can do it the way I did it. There’s guys that become head coaches at a smaller level very early in their career, have a ton of success, are able to move up that way.
There’s a lot of different ways to get it done. But the method, the similarity I would say is humility, work ethic, unbelievable attention to detail, and a willingness to take chances sometimes.
David Worlock: Shaka, I realize a lot has happened since then. A year ago you’re playing in the CBI tournament, winning five straight, winning the title. Were there any lessons from that, any help?
Coach Smart: Yeah, I think so. First and foremost, it gave us five additional opportunities to play our young guys and develop our program. Remember, that was our first year here with our coaching staff and that team. We were still getting to know each other. When we played in that tournament, it gave us a phenomenal opportunity to continue building and learning and playing a lot of our young guys.
We were fortunate to win. We won five games. We beat St. Louis in backtoback games in the championship series. It built a belief in what we needed to do, particularly in the postseason. When you get into March, it’s been a long season. You’re not practicing nearly as long as you did in November or December. The way you go about preparation is a little bit different.
It gave us somewhat of a formula to follow. As you mention, the NCAA tournament is a whole different universe. Fortunately we’ve had similar results.
David Worlock: Could you talk about Jamie Skeen. He had a nice season for you last year but really improved this season. Can you talk about the improvement, how he made it this year, then the championship game performance.
Coach Smart: Sure. He’s had a phenomenal year for us, one that just keeps getting better and better. I can’t say I’m surprised, though, because as soon as last season ended, and actually before the season even ended, he played very well in the postseason tournament. We won the CBI. As soon as his season ended, Larry Sanders declared early for the NBA draft. He left as a junior. He was a 15th pick in the NBA draft.
I would say Jamie, of all people, you never want an NBAcaliber player to leave early, but Jamie of all people was the beneficiary of Larry’s departure. Jamie became the man. He became our goto guy. He was going to get as many touches as he could handle. Now we’ve been able to go to him over and over and over again, and he’s responded. He’s led us in scoring, rebounding. He’s been at times a point forward for us. We can play through him.
I’m just so happy for him because he did go through some adversity earlier in his career. Really happy that it’s finishing the right way.
David Worlock: Obviously Jamie was a guy you inherited when you came to VCU. How far has he come since the first time you met him?
Coach Smart: He’s come a long way, a long way. He’s matured. He’s developed as a person. He’s done a really good job putting himself in a position where he’s on track to graduate this spring. He’s come leaps and bounds is the best way I could put it.
His attitude has been one of humility, one of wanting to be coached, wanting to get better. We have an assistant coach, Will Wade, that from the first week we arrived here Will became Jamie’s mentor, I guess, on the staff. We put all of our players under one or another assistant coach in terms of watching over them academically and otherwise.
Will has just done a phenomenal job with Jamie. Jamie’s attitude, again, has been a huge component of his progress.
David Worlock: I think I also read where during the NIT, Jamie wanted the ball a lot more. Is that what kind of started, Let’s give it to Jamie?
Coach Smart: We had planned on giving him the ball quite a bit. You’re exactly right. He came out before we played UCLA, he said, Guys, give me the ball. If you watched our team, we got a lot of guys that like to shoot the ball, particularly from outside. Sometimes you have a choice between shooting the three or throwing it into Jamie or one of our other bigs. Our guys have done a great job since then of, even more so, making it a point of emphasis to give him the ball.
David Worlock: I’ve asked each of the coaches this same question. You touched on it a little previously. If there was a moment this season, be it a practice or a game or a series of games, where you felt this team really sort of galvanized and maybe took that last step necessary? Did you really burn the calendar, the February calendar?
Coach Smart: I did. I took the page, the month of the calendar, it was one of those big desk calendars, the ones people have on their desks, I had kind of a trash can underneath me at the practice gym. The guys were all sitting in front of me. I had a lighter and I set it on fire.
The assistant coaches gave me a hard time because they said I held onto it. If I would have held onto it one second longer, my hand would have caught on fire. The guys watched it burn. That was symbolic for us of putting the month of February behind us. We didn’t have a very good month of February. We had some setbacks, some injuries, things that didn’t go our way.
In terms of your question, I would say the moment to me for our guys that really showed them we can beat anybody in the country, and this is a testament to our league, this particular team in our league, was when we beat George Mason convincingly. We beat them by 16 points in the semifinals of our league tournament.
As someone that maybe doesn’t follow our league, you might say, So what, it’s a team from the Colonial. George Mason at that point was the most dominant team in the country. They were beating teams by average margin of victory of 14 to 15 points. To us at least they signified a team that could certainly make a deep run in the tournament and obviously a few years back did.
When our guys beat them convincingly in the league tournament, that demonstrated to them, if we follow the plan, we can do this same thing against anybody.
David Worlock: You have a week break between the end of your regular season and your conference tournament. Do you recall what day you violated Virginia Fire Code 4.3.2?
Coach Smart: It was March 1st. I remember specifically doing it on March 1st because it was a Tuesday. We had lost on Saturday, February 26th. We gave the guys off on Sunday as we normally do. Then on Monday I had gone recruiting because I had to go see a prospect. The assistant coaches had done just individual skill work with the guys.
March 1st was our first practice after the regular season where everyone on the team was together. That’s the first thing we did. We got everyone together. I burned the calendar.
Interview by David Worlock