And have people like me brave New York traffic on a Monday night just to see him in action.
You can say what you want about the geographically-challenged conferences, the Colonial meanders from Wilmington, N.C., to Atlanta (Georgia State) to Boston (Northeastern) to Hempstead, N.Y., where VCU was taking on Hofstra, but there's probably no way I would get to see VCU otherwise, so it does have its benefits.
Some would say Smart just got lucky, and obviously when a guy in his second year at VCU finds himself at the Final Four, yeah, he has to get a little fortunate.
Consider that the door was likely opened for Smart way back in 2002 when VCU took a chance on then-27-year-old Jeff Capel. Capel went 79-41 in four seasons, good enough to get him a job above the Red Line at Oklahoma. VCU went with another young coach, Anthony Grant, and continued to do well -- albeit largely unnoticed to most college basketball fans. All Grant did in three seasons was win three regular season Colonial titles, go to the NCAA Tournament twice, beating Duke and taking Pittsburgh to overtime.
If you're like me when you read that, you said, "Oh yeah, I remember that. Eric Maynor and 'the dagger'." I do remember that VCU team was very good, and a bounce here or a bounce there, and maybe they would have immediately followed up George Mason, and who knows? But Grant's tenure at VCU ended with a one-point loss to UCLA in the 2009 NCAA first round, and he was off to Alabama.
But the success of the two youngsters that preceded him likely let the VCU brass feel better about hiring someone with no head coaching experience. And even though they finished 27-9 in Smart's first season, they were only 11-7 in conference, good for only fifth place (they did win the CBI championship).
Some people never like to ask the question, "How would things be different if?" Maybe Shaka Smart never asks himself that question. But what would have happened had VCU -- as most expected -- not been given an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament (a newly enlarged one as well) last March?
Of course, their run was amazing. And Shaka, a big quote guy, probably knows this one from Thomas Jefferson, "I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."
I came to Hofstra Monday to see Shaka and his team in person, to give a nod to what he and his team had done, and to try to see what the future holds for VCU. While Capel and Grant bolted fairly quickly, Smart got a new contract, brought in new recruits, and looks like he may try to stay a while. Can VCU sustain what they've done?
Monday was the 11th anniversary of the opening of Hofstra's Mack Center, probably best known for being home to a 2008 debate between Barack Obama and John McCain (security must have been fun for that one). Despite its odd shape, I approve. It's got 5,000 seats, but it's on campus, the acoustics seem good. It's got some amenities, but it doesn't overwhelm you.
Other than the obvious, there are some similarities between Smart and Obama (not to compare the relevance of the two jobs, but still). From across the court, Smart comes off as extremely confident, but not easily rattled. His hands stay in his pockets most of the time, he rarely raises his voice, rarely reacts negatively even on poor passes or poor decisions by his team. His assistants talk in his ear, he nods, doesn't show much emotion, doesn't fly up and down the sidelines.
Before the game, VCU had an odd ritual where everyone on the bench lined up and gave a handshake and then a bump to each player as they walked by, almost in a rhythm. It took maybe two minutes to go through the entire line for each player and coach. Even beyond Smart, it seems like a young staff.
The way the Rams play is at complete contrast to Smart's demeanor. VCU gets in your face and presses the entire contest, and eventually it got to Hofstra on this night. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but when teams are winning and successful, they have a swagger that's hard to define.
Some of the Hofstra fans thought it was arrogance when the Rams huddled in the middle of the court on every timeout, which was fine, except they were in the way of the Hofstra cheerleaders and whatever promotions the nice people were trying to run. But Smart and his team weren't budging, leading to a few, "Get off the court, you jerks" statements, and one, "Just because you go to the Final Four doesn't mean you can do whatever you want".
But with confidence (or arrogance, depending on your viewpoint) comes that swagger. VCU had it last season in the NCAA Tournament, and you saw it Monday night, as they pretty much toyed with the Pride on their way to an easy 80-63 win. As regular Hofstra watcher Gary Moore pointed out, they don't look like your average mid-major team. They're big, strong, and athletic.
As they will throughout conference play likely, VCU will have a big Final Four target on its back, and Hofstra came out fired up and scored the first four points of the game. But there was no visible reaction from Smart, he just waited for the early adrenaline to die down, and his team was soon in front.
As I had seen another young coach do the day before, Smart began with a relatively passive press and then turned up the heat midway through the first half, eventually stretching the lead and putting the Pride away.
The other thing you noticed about VCU is the visiting fans' section, specifically the fact that there actually was one. In most of the mid-major games I go to, the visiting section is usually a couple of parents. But on a Monday night (technically it was a holiday, but still) 350 miles from Richmond, VCU had a legitimate, audible from start to finish, crowd decked out in black and gold.
VCU stumbled to a seventh-place finish in a preseason tournament in Charleston back in November, but I left impressed Monday. As Gary also said, they certainly passed the eye test (sorry, Jay Bilas), they certainly seem good enough to contend in the CAA and return to the NCAA Tournament. Smart has benefited from inheriting plenty of talent, but the Rams do have six freshmen on the roster and only one senior.
Believe it or not, there are actually a dozen Division I coaches currently younger than Shaka Smart, and they keep getting younger and younger all the time, as the rage -- especially with the teams we're concerned with -- is to find the next big thing.
Is Smart that guy? Based on one evening, I'd say he might have a pretty good shot. As a scholar and someone who loves quotations, surely Smart knows the John Wooden line, "Winning takes talent. To repeat takes character."
Based on one night at least, I think Shaka Smart and his team have plenty of character.
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 80, at HOFSTRA 63 01/02/2012
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 11-3 (2-0) -- D. Theus 5-10 4-5 14; B. Burgess 2-6 3-4 8; B. Weber 5-10 0-0 12; T. Daniels 5-11 0-0 15; R. Brandenberg 0-5 0-1 0; J. Reddic 4-5 4-4 12; T. Graham 3-6 2-3 8; D. Haley 1-1 0-1 2; J. Guest 0-0 6-6 6; T. Okereafor 0-1 0-0 0; D. Hinton 0-0 0-0 0; H. Houston 0-0 0-0 0; R. McCarter 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 26-56 19-24 80. HOFSTRA 6-8 (0-2) -- M. Moore 4-14 5-6 14; N. Lester 3-7 4-4 10; D. Imes 4-4 2-2 10; S. McLendon 4-8 3-3 13; D. McMillan 1-3 2-4 4; S. Nwaukoni 2-4 0-0 4; M. Kone 2-3 0-1 4; S. Mejia 1-3 2-2 4; M. Grogan 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-46 18-22 63.
Three-point goals: VCU 9-24 (B. Burgess 1-4; T. Daniels 5-8; D. Theus 0-2; R. Brandenberg 0-4; R. McCarter 1-1; B. Weber 2-3; T. Graham 0-2), HOFS 3-12 (N. Lester 0-1; S. Mejia 0-1; M. Moore 1-7; S. McLendon 2-3); Rebounds: VCU 31 (J. Guest 6), HOFS 27 (N. Lester 9); Assists: VCU 21 (D. Theus 7), HOFS 11 (D. McMillan 5); Total Fouls -- VCU 23, HOFS 21; Fouled Out: VCU-None; HOFS-D. McMillan.