Five years (and counting) of winning for VCU's Shaka Smart
The 2011 Final Four was nice, no question. But Shaka Smart's most impressive accomplishment at VCU has been the way he's maintained a level of success over a long period of time.
He became a star in March 2011 because he was young, good-looking and winning big with a fun style (and cool name) that created trouble for opponents and smiles for VCU fans, and that run to the Final Four will be remembered fondly forever. Man, was that something or was that something? But, nearly three years later, I honestly don't think what I witnessed in those two wild weeks represents the the best of Shaka Smart as a college basketball coach because -- and I mean this with all due respect -- what I witnessed in those two wild weeks was mostly rooted in luck.
In fairness, luck might be the wrong word.
But hear me out.
Because here's what I mean: VCU played 34 games before the 2011 NCAA Tournament, and the Rams made more than 11 3-pointers exactly zero times in those 34 games. Seriously, they never did it once. Then the NCAA Tournament started, and VCU made 12-of-25 3-point attempts to beat Georgetown in the Round of 64, 12-of-26 3-point attempts to beat Florida State in the Sweet 16, and 12-of-25 3-point attempts to beat Kansas in the Elite Eight, meaning the Rams, remarkably, did something in three of their first five NCAA Tournament games that they never did even once in the 34 games leading up to Selection Sunday.
That's how they went from the First Four to the Final Four.
That's how that magical ride unfolded.
VCU got hot and shot the ball uncharacteristically well.
So, yeah, that's when Shaka Smart became a college basketball star -- the guy UCLA, North Carolina State and Illinois (just to name a few) subsequently tried to hire with millions of dollars and stories about power conferences and tradition. But I'm still not sure that's when Shaka Smart became a great college basketball coach because, at that point, he'd still never finished higher than fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association standings, and, again, the run to the Final Four was mostly the result of some unusual shooting efforts that could've launched lots of coaches to significant wins.
Now his resume is undeniable.
Smart backed that trip to the 2011 Final Four by winning more games (29) in the 2011-12 season than he won the year before (28), and, after winning another 27 games last season despite a move to the Atlantic 10, Smart entered this season with a career winning percentage of .750. He's made the NCAA Tournament each of the past three years, and he's heading for a fourth consecutive trip thanks to a 20-7 record highlighted by a win over the Virginia team that's now alone atop the ACC standings.
This run of success?
It's not two weeks of hot shooting.
It's five years of program-building that's created a culture of consistent winning. Smart, unlike most young coaches, neither looked for nor took the next big job. He instead committed to VCU, then found prospects who would commit to his style, and the result has been one big win after another leading into Saturday's game with 10th-ranked Saint Louis.
The Rams are favored in that game, by the way.
That means they should win it.
If they do, they could find themselves back in the Associated Press Top 25 and Coaches polls on Monday afternoon, and that'll be another tangible accomplishment on Smart's already impressive resume. No doubt, the 2011 Final Four is still the brightest item on it; it might be that way forever. But what Smart has done in the three years after those magical two weeks is the real evidence that he's a special talent because anybody could coach a team that gets hot over a span of 10 days and wins some games it wasn't supposed to win, theoretically. But coaches who are consistently successful over a span of years -- despite roster turnover and even league changes -- cannot be discounted, and, as the season-by-season results show, Shaka Smart is now one of those coaches.
Note: Shaka Smart will be featured Saturday in CBS Sports' latest Men of March series at 1 p.m. ET. The special will re-air on at 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday on CBS Sports Network.
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