VCU coach Shaka Smart infuses his Final Four team with energy

HOUSTON — It was a forgettable moment, really, just another hustle drill by just another underdog team in just another practice. Few people saw it, and when the Final Four is over, few will talk about it.

On the other hand, it says everything you need to know about Shaka Smart, who is everything you need to know about VCU, which is everything you need to know about underdogs.

At VCU, they call it the Iron Man drill, a burst of insanity where a player takes a charge, and then saves a ball from going out of bounds, and then dives on a loose ball while the team follows him in a pack. It is a drill that measures a player's desire, and his hunger, and his effort.

Which sort of explains why Smart, the VCU coach, was sliding on his chest across the floor in pursuit of a bouncing ball while his players howled.

This is who Shaka Smart is, all energy and drive and relentlessness. There are coaches who coach as if they are CEOs, and there are coaches who coach as if they are college professors. There are coaches who coach as if they believe they are smarter than everyone else, or slicker than anyone else, or meaner than anyone else.

Shaka?

He coaches as if he's a freshman trying to impress the coach.

This is why VCU is here, because of Shaka Smart, because he still approaches basketball as if he was a point guard leading a fastbreak. He has turned every doubt into motivation, and every critic into a member of the choir. And if a basketball rolls in front of him along the way, by golly, he's going to dive on it.

Take Friday's Final Four practice, in which Smart took his turn in taking a charge during a team drill, then skidded on the floor after the loose ball.

"We've been talking about how important some of the defensive things are," Smart said. "Our coaches figured we would step in and put our bodies where our mouth is."

Nothing new there. In other practices, Smart has taken the ball from his point guard and run the offense himself. When he has been done, said guard Joey Rodriguez, he'll look at his team and say, "Yeah. Like that."

By the way, this wasn't the first time he has jumped on a wayward basketball. During his halftime speech when the Rams were on their way to upsetting No. 1 seed Kansas, he was talking about the importance of getting to loose balls. About that time, a ball rolled across the locker room floor, and sure enough, Smart jumped on it as if it were gold. Which, when you get down to it, was the point.

Smart is still young enough to coach like this, to let his actions surge through his team like an energy drink. Let Jim Calhoun jump on a ball. Let John Calipari take a charge.

"He thinks he can still dance and still play," Rodriguez said of his coach. "He tries to tell me he is a better passer than me. I just tell him he went to Kenyon College and we're in the Final Four."

These days, America is learning that Smart is gloriously, deliciously off-kilter, all right. At 33, he has led his Rams from the First Four to the Final Four, and along the way, he has established himself as one of the brightest, most accomplished young coaches in the country. In two years, he has won 55 of 75 games, and the question at VCU has changed from how far the team will go to how long the coach might stay.

So how does a coach make it to the Final Four?

You start by being a brilliant decision-maker. Even though, the truth be known, Smart once turned down Harvard and Yale to go to tiny Kenyon College.

You follow that by inheriting a graceful, athletic basketball team. Even though, if you check the records, this same VCU team lost to USF in December.

You follow that up by wowing the critics who know the game best. Except that the critics thought the Rams were about the 70th best team in the 68-team field. "Roseanne Barr," is how analyst Dick Vitale referred to the Rams.

And then you follow it with the most wondrous run the sport has seen to the wackiest Final Four of them all.

In other words, it has been an amazing journey for Smart (who was an assistant for Billy Donovan at Florida in 2008) and a team that seems to have absorbed his personality. Along the way, he has had to swallow his grief (his grandfather Walter King, who Smart calls the most influential male role model of his life, died Tuesday). He has had to absorb punch lines. And still, VCU has rolled.

Watch the Rams play these days, and it's hard to believe this team lost four of five games to finish out February. Not that the team remembers. Smart dealt with that, too. He took a large calendar page, stuffed it into a trash can and lit fire to it.

That's the essence of Smart, too. He allowed his team to forget. He has made it believe. He has guided it past USC, past Georgetown, past Purdue, past FSU and past Kansas. How many other NCAA teams have ever won five straight upsets?

Two more of them, and the Rams can win one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports.

If that happens, don't be surprised to see Shaka dive on the trophy.

VCU coach Shaka Smart infuses his Final Four team with energy 04/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 1, 2011 10:03pm]

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