So much to talk about, where to begin?
PROCESSING THIS EXIT
Shaka Smart had six very successful seasons at VCU. He is gone.
As human beings, we all wish him success. He’s a good father with an awesome wife and it’s hard to root against anyone with a kid that’s that cute. It hurts that he is gone, but it hurts even more if you let that idea torture you. Unforgiveness is self-inflicted torture, am I right?
So best of luck, Shaka.
That said, on the court, Shaka Smart is now another coach of a power conference team that is in the way. He is the “they” that he once coached against. Perhaps the toughest part of this whole thing for me is the man he chose to work for, a guy (Texas AD, Steve Patterson) who commented that the Texas’ of the world shouldn’t have to do NCAA revenue sharing with schools like VCU because the VCU’s of the world aren’t earning the money. A guy who described the teams outside of football and basketball as “just expenses” and who bragged about a Texas scholarship putting a UT athlete in the top third of household incomes in the US.
I’m quite frankly surprised that Shaka would choose to work for a man like that at one of the nation’s two richest athletic departments. A man who is loathed by the folks at the Portland Trailblazers organization and Arizona State athletics that he left in his wake. To be honest it all just seems so un-Shaka.
I started going to church almost a year ago to become less of an asshole. It’s moments like this when I’m glad I have that outlet. So thanks for all you’ve done, Shaka Smart.
THIS AIN’T OUR FIRST RODEO
Some of you may find this hard to believe, but VCU existed prior to Shaka Smart.
I grew up a Ram fan as a son of a VCU grad, my playing career killed upon enrollment of my first Sonny Smith basketball camp, but didn’t officially become the die hard I am today until I enrolled at VCU at the tender age of 23 (late bloomer, classic VCU). It was a fun year to enroll, mostly because the Rams, led by a man just five years my senior, Jeff Capel, went to their first NCAA tournament since 1996 in just his second season as a D1 head coach. VCU went 23-8 that year and lost by one point in what was essentially an NCAA tournament road game to a Wake Forest team that was led by some dude named Chris Paul.
It was the beginning of a new era of VCU hoops.
Capel left after the following two seasons for a job at Oklahoma (coincidentally Texas’ main rival), boom goes the dynamite, VCU opponents said the Rams were done, yada yada yada.
Enter, Anthony Grant.
The longtime Florida assistant took over VCU and led the Rams back to the NCAA tournament in his first season on Broad St., upsetting the Duke Blue Devils for arguably VCU’s biggest tournament win up to that point and nearly upset Pittsburg in the following round before losing in overtime.
Grant took the Rams to the NIT the following year then back to the NCAA tournament in his third year before losing to a talented UCLA squad by a point after a potentially Eric Maynor dagger was just off.
Shortly thereafter we were all looking at pictures of him smiling while getting off a plain in Tuscaloosa, Alabama as the new coach of the Crimson Tide.
Things looked even gloomier after this loss but just two years later I’m eating free ice cream in my Westin Galleria hotel room before VCU’s first-ever Final 4 game.
Call that a ton of a good luck, call it VCU being bigger than one man, or call it hope.
This is only the end for VCU basketball if Ram fans, staff and players turn in their jerseys and quit. That has yet to happen since I’ve followed VCU, therefore I’m optimistic this is a chance to continue the growth of the program.
I’m am however also intelligent enough to realize the importance of this next hire. I’ve seen the Grant and Smart hires, but I’ve also seen what a Benny Moss can do to a program. Gotta get this right.
WHAT DOESN’T KILL US MAKES US STRONGER
Speaking of quitting, when Anthony Grant left only one player left the program (minus Ben Eblen, a recruit that followed Grant to Bama but didn’t make it to his senior season there). His name was Joey Rodriguez, a potential superstar for Rollins College before he quickly returned to VCU. Shortly after his return he was throwing passes all over the Alamo Dome en route to VCU’s first Final 4 appearance, a journey followed by an ESPY award and a late night TV appearance on the George Lopez show.
Life is funny.
I’m of the opinion that this is an opportunity for the players of VCU to only strengthen their bond.
When pops leaves the family mom and the kids don’t go their separate ways, they become inseparable, an unbreakable team for life and beyond.
I heard Bradford Burgess talk about how the team essentially held back Shaka in his first season at VCU, Burgess admitting to basically sabotaging practices himself during an interview with Greg Burton on ESPN radio.
A year later and some buy-in and VCU made it to heights never thought possible on Broad St. I hope those lessons are quickly passed on to VCU’s current team, a team that consists of Bradford’s younger brother, Jordan.
IMPROVING ON SHAKA
The possibility no one wants to admit exists: What if VCU actually gets better?
Here are the facts:
VCU’s most successful season under Shaka Smart came with four seniors recruited by Anthony Grant. Since that Final 4 appearance Coach Smart did an amazing job by leading the Rams to four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. That is a great accomplishment. His wins however during that stretch came against Wichita State and Akron, two non-BCS schools, the later of which had just lost their starting point guard. Smart’s teams lost all their games to power conference schools, losing close ones to Indiana and Ohio State as well as a 25-point loss to Michigan. In 2013 the Rams lost to Stephen F Austin out of the Southland conference.
Again, it’s amazing that Shaka was able to lead his teams to those NCAA tournaments, but those are also the same results that just got Texas’ previous coach fired.
Smart went 0-2 in NCAA tournament action the past two seasons and a combined 2-4 the past four seasons. He led VCU to a bunch of conference title games but never won a regular season title in his six years at VCU, finishing second three times (2012, 2013 and 2014) and finishing fourth or worse three times (2010, 2011, 2015).
VCU was ranked 188th or worse the last two seasons in effective field goal percentage and had an effective field goal percentage defense of 174th or worse in three of their six seasons under Smart. VCU’s adjusted offensive efficiency ranked sixth in the Atlantic 10 this season, seventh the previous season. VCU has been good but has also been far from dominant in either conference under Smart.
Moral of the story? Believe it or not, there is actual room for improvement.
Maybe I’m looking for a silver lining, but if everyone is going to burry VCU after the loss of Shaka Smart I’m prepared to be the guy who’s digging the Rams out of that grave and shoveling some of that dirt in the direction of the Texas Longhorns.
VCU is in their best position ever to bring in a coach that will keep this party going, and we aren’t the only program to lose a good coach.
Butler lost Brad Stevens for God’s sake but returned to the NCAA tournament this year under former assistant, Chris Holtmann.
Xavier lost Thad Matta (Ohio State) before losing Sean Miller (Arizona) but have kept things rolling with Chris Mack (three Sweet 16 appearances in six seasons).
There are many more examples of stories like that, including the obvious ones at VCU.
Shaka Smart inherited a talented VCU squad but VCU’s next coach will get that AND the keys to a brand new practice facility, will inherit an Atlantic 10 program instead of a CAA one and overall just a much bigger and better brand.
Some recruits may leave, maybe players as well, but IF that were to happen, in their place will be players who always dreamt of playing at a school like VCU. Those are the dudes I want in a VCU jersey.
I suspect the favorites to take over the reigns will be former assistants Will Wade (currently at UT Chattanooga) and Mike Rhoades (Rice), as well as Jeremy Ballard who I suspect would love to unpack the box he packed up last night in a new and even bigger office. I’ve talked to lots of folks around the program and I’ve heard a TON of support for all three of those hires.
I wouldn’t be surprised if VCU AD, Ed McLaughlin, goes outside that group and brings in a hot coach from another school like Buffalo’s Bobby Hurley — who you may remember from Duke fame, but right now my money would be on a former assistant.