Monday, March 25, 2013

Dr. Franken-Smart's Monster

Along with the buzzer-beaters and blowouts of March Madness come the firings in the coaching ranks. Along with the head coaches of losing teams getting fired, some coaches whose teams made the 68-team field of the NCAA tournament get axed, too.

Accordingly, UCLA has fired Ben Howland and Tubby Smith is out at Minnesota.

Howland, 55, was 233-107 in 10 years at UCLA. This year his team won the Pacific 12 regular season title and went 25-10. Ironically, his Bruins lost to Smith’s Golden Gophers in the NCAA tournament. Smith, 61, was an overall 124-81 in six seasons at Minnesota. He went 21-13 this year. Minnesota just lost to Florida in the round of 32.

UCLA and Minnesota qualifying for the NCAA's championship tournament wasn't enough. Headlines (here, here) are linking those two openings to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Shaka Smart (pictured above).

Which means, with the Sweet 16 games still to be played, the annual Shaka Watch has already started. In four years at VCU Smart, 35, has an overall record of 111-37. During the 2012-13 season Smart became the second youngest coach to win 100 games.

Last year Smart turned down an offer to make $2.5 million a year coaching at the University of Illinois. Why did he turn down roughly a million dollars more than he makes at VCU?

Perhaps Coach Smart had a list of good reasons to stay. Maybe he likes his job. Maybe he likes Richmond; he and his family have bought a home in the Fan District. Maybe he’s not chasing money, so much as it is chasing him. And, it could be that VCU’s phenom of a basketball coach is still in the process of building a project -- a basketball monster.

VCU's monster-in-progress looks like it's being built to consistently compete for the national championship. And, before Dr. Franken-Smart leaves his West Broad Street laboratory, this intense mad scientist wants to see his brainchild strut its monster stuff in the last tilt of the NCAA’s Big Dance.

When Smart first came to VCU, right away, he talked about his new system. He called it “Havoc.” Later, 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 playing 38 minutes a game, because to go at the pace he wanted, no player -- no matter how well conditioned -- would have the stamina. He said he would use his bench more liberally than many coaches do, because starters would play fewer minutes. 

The problem in the beginning was that he was using the previous coach’s recruits. Not to say they were bad players. Not at all. But to make Havoc work as he envisioned, Smart needed better defensive players than Joey Rodriguez, like maybe a Briante Weber. He also needed big men who could run the floor better than Jamie Skeen, like maybe a Juvonte Reddic. And, yes, he needed slashers to the basket with more finishing ability than Brad Burgess ... like Treveon Graham, for instance.

All three 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 by him to execute his trapping, overplaying defensive scheme.

Smart’s game plan also calls for open-court, 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 most of the rosters of successful schools in the top six conferences. Weber, Reddic and Graham will all be back next year and Smart’s recruiting class for 2013-14 is fast afoot and impressive.

The pampered stars at Kentucky and Kansas don’t want to have to practice or play the smothering defense Smart insists upon. Nor do they hope/expect to play four years of college basketball.

Whereas, at VCU, the players are onboard for four years and they graduate. If Smart were to take his demanding system to a major conference school, it might 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 bright kids, who want to prove they can consistently beat such teams with a well-executed plan and an all-out effort.

With Dr. Franken-Smart as their coach the Rams seem to believe they can do it. After all, most of their opponents have no way of practicing realistically to face the monster known as Havoc.

Last year Smart’s players had to have loved it when he walked away from the temptation of more money. Coach is all in, too, is what they must have taken away from Smart’s continued dedication to building a program at VCU. If he does it again this time that feeling will only expand.

Yes, it’s reasonable to assume Smart will one day leave VCU to coach elsewhere. Someday an irresistible offer will come. Still, Rams fans hope the good doctor will wait for a call from an athletic director at a major program who wants to replace a longtime successful coach, a guy who's retiring as a happy man.

In the meantime, maybe next season, the biggest fans of Havoc are hoping for the Rams to be dancing to the Monster Mash, as their coach, a smiling Dr. Franken-Smart, cuts down the net for the last game of the 2013-14 season.

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