Friday, March 23, 2012

Dr. Franken-Smart’s Monster

Shaka Smart speaking his first words to VCU fans in 2009

In the last week reports have said Shaka Smart turned down a chance to make $2.5 million a year coaching at the University of Illinois. Why did Smart stay on at Virginia Commonwealth University?

Click here to read a Richmond Times-Dispatch article, “Shaka Smart: 'I love it at VCU',” written by Tim Pearell. 

Meanwhile, it says here that Coach Smart probably had a list of good reasons to stay. Maybe he likes his job. Maybe he likes Richmond. Maybe he’s not chasing money, so much as it is chasing him.

Maybe baby ... but I think the biggest reason is that VCU’s 34-year-old phenom of a basketball coach is still in the process of building a monster. Smart’s monster is being built to consistently compete for the national championship.

And, before Dr. Franken-Smart the mad scientist leaves his West Broad Street laboratory, he wants to see his artfully designed brainchild strut its monster stuff -- Total Havoc! -- in the last tilt of the NCAA’s Big Dance.

Coming off of its Final Four appearance last season, before the 2011-12 season, VCU was thought by many observers to be an inexperienced team in a rebuilding year -- not at all an outfit that would win a game in the NCAA tournament. Of course, VCU won the Colonial Athletic Association’s tournament and went on to defeat Wichita St. University, 62-59, before losing to Indiana University, 63-61.  

Moreover, given what he just accomplished with the ninth youngest team among the 344 in Division I, it now seems within the realm of possibility that in the next two or three seasons Dr. Franken-Smart’s monster could feel a magic bolt of lightning and beat a major conference powerhouse in the championship game, fair and square.

Background note from “Smart played college basketball at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he graduated magna cum laude with a history degree.  He also earned a master's degree in social science from California University of Pennsylvania.”

When Smart first came to VCU he talked about his new system. He called it “Havoc.”

After one of his first games, in the media room in the Siegel Center Smart explained how it would work. He said no one would likely be on the court for 38 minutes a game very often, because to go at the pace he wanted, no player -- no matter how well conditioned -- would have the stamina. Consequently, he would use his bench more liberally than many coaches do, because starters would play fewer minutes.

It was all part of the plan Smart brought with him. It was a plan for how a special kind of team could upset all the big boys with a defense no one could practice to play against. 

The problem then was that he was using the previous coach’s recruits. Not to say they were bad players. But to make Havoc really work, Smart needed players with more heart than Larry Sanders. He needed better defensive players than Joey Rodriguez. He needed big men who could run the floor better than Jamie Skeen. And, yes, he needed a couple of slashers who could drive to the basket faster and with more finishing ability than Brad Burgess.

Don’t get me wrong. All four of the former Rams stars mentioned above were good basketball players, guys who gave their all to the program and brought glory to it. While Smart coached them quite effectively, they weren’t handpicked to execute his original trapping, overplaying defensive scheme, but (sophomore) Rob Brandenberg, (freshman) Treveon Graham, (sophomore) Juvonte Reddic and (freshman) Briante Weber were.  

Smart’s game plan also calls for unselfish play on offense -- a total commitment to group thinking. Truth be told, it’s harder to find the sort of player who is capable of thinking that way on the rosters of perennial Top 25 schools in the top six conferences.

The pampered star players at Kentucky and Kansas don’t want to have to practice or play the smothering defense Smart insists upon. It takes too much effort, without worrying about who gets the credit. They want to put up eye-popping statistics and they don’t necessarily expect to play four years of college basketball, either.

Whereas, at VCU, the players plan to play all four years and graduate. If Smart were to take his system to a major conference school, it would be harder to sell it to talented one-and-done kids on their way to pro basketball.

What Smart now has at VCU is a group of teachable, bright kids, who are all fast afoot. They want to prove they can beat a Kansas or a Kentucky with a well-executed plan and an all-out effort. With Smart as their coach/mad scientist they believe they can do it.

If Smart had decided to go to Illinois he would have had to start all over, and maybe with superstar types who think they already know it all.

Since I haven't ever turned down an extra million dollars (per year), I don't know what it feels like. Perhaps it's a liberating feeling. But I can imagine how much Smart’s players adore it that he walked away from the money. Coach is all in, too, is what they have to have taken away from Smart’s demonstrated dedication to building a program at VCU and his fidelity to shared promises.

Bottom line: Stay tuned for Rams in dancing shoes, doing the Monster Mash, as Dr. Franken-Smart finishes cutting down the national championship game’s net. 

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-- Words and photos by F.T. Rea

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