VCU Enters March With Déjà Vu
Shaka Smart has Rams back on the Big Dance bubble.
by Scott Gleeson | @ScottMGleeson
Shaka Smart and his VCU Rams have found themselves in an eerily similar situation.
With March approaching, they’re hanging around the NCAA tournament bubble.
We all know how the story went last year. The Rams squeaked into the field of 68, earning a No. 11 seed. Then they knocked off USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to reach the Final Four. Smart became a celebrity and VCU won an ESPY for Best Upset. A nation was inspired by a mid-major school that no one thought would even escape its first-round play-in game.
Smart passed on the small-school-to-big-school route that most mid-major coaches bank on following deep postseason runs and the 34-year-old stayed with VCU, signing an eight-year deal and turning down North Carolina State.
Forget that VCU lost two of its best players in Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen. Smart reloaded and knew that his team had enough weaponry coming back to be good. Senior Brad Burgess (12.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg) returned from last year and other players such as Juvonte Reddic (10.8, 7.0 rpg) have made the transformation from role player to big minutes catalyst. VCU has proven to be a top-notch defensive team, forcing the second most turnovers in the nation.
Following an 89-77 win over George Mason in the CAA regular season finale that solidified VCU as the No. 2 seed in the CAA Tournament, SLAM caught up with Smart to pick his brain heading into March Madness.
Shaka Smart: We lost give guys from last season so we were looking at an entirely new team with six freshman coming in. The big thing I stressed was moving on from last year. There’s always a tendency when you have a really good season to bask in the glory of what you did as a program. But that mentality would have set us up for disappointment and failure. We needed to focus on THIS YEAR with guys developing their games and stepping into new roles.
SLAM: Your team has put together two impressive winning streaks (eight straight wins and 11 straight wins). How has the team progressed over the course of the season in your eyes?
SS: Our guys have really made great progress. We were really immature from an experience standpoint. At the beginning of the season, we didn’t play very well. We lost to Seton Hall and Georgia Tech. That was a humbling experience for our guys and it seemed like we really grew up after that.
SLAM: Since we’re talking about two different teams, for people who haven’t seen VCU in action this season what’s the biggest difference between this year’s squad and last year’s?
SS: We don’t have quite the same margin for error that last year’s team did. Last year, we could really break away by hitting a bunch of threes. There are times when we struggle to score and we’re not as explosive offensively. But at the same time, I think we’re much better than we were last year defensively.
SLAM: It’s been a down year for the CAA in terms of RPI but last week’s BracketBusters success helped transfix some views on the league. What’s your perspective on the other top-tier teams in the conference? How good are they?
SS: Drexel has had a great year. They have terrific players and were expected to win the league. But sometimes it’s not always easy to have that expectation. They haven’t lost in who knows how long. And they’ve won in a lot of different ways with a lot of difference guys. They absolutely look like an NCAA tournament team. And then there’s George Mason, a team that went through a coaching change with Paul Hewitt. First of all, whenever you change coaches, no matter who it is, it’s difficult. There’s a huge transition. He’s done a remarkable job with their team.
SLAM: VCU’s “wreaking havoc” full court press tends to seriously affect teams that haven’t game-planned against you guys in your league. How helpful do you think the press is for your team in terms of forcing turnovers and more importantly, switching over the momentum in your favor?
SS: We’re a team that plays off our defensive energy, definitely. Pressing gets our team in a defensive mindset. Offensively, we’re not the best half court offense out there. So anytime we have a chance to create offense from our defense, that’s what we’re trying to do.
SLAM: In case you weren’t aware, VCU is on the bubble once again for teams with a chance to get an at-large bid to the NCAAs. The team was here last year, what’s that process like trying to block everything out and just focus on basketball?
SS: I hate to sound like every coach, but we’re taking it one game at time. We try not to pay attention to the last four in, last four out stuff. The goal is to do everything you can to win your conference tournament… that way there’s no guessing. If you don’t win, then it’s a waiting game.
SLAM: Do you think VCU is an NCAA tournament team this season?
SS: You bet.
SLAM: Predictions for the CAA tournament?
SS: I’m just looking forward to our team getting to practice. In February, practice time is so limited. Whenever we can get practice time and get better, for a young team, that’s valuable time. That’ll help us get ready for the tournament.
SLAM: Obviously it’s a different season and a different team, but should your team get into the Dance again, how much do you feel that epic NCAA tournament run last year will benefit?
SS: There’s no question, that type of experience helps. Once you gain something like that, no one can take it away and it’s a great thing to have in your back pocket. But it’s not a guarantee, it more so gives us knowledge of what it takes to win, what it’s like to survive, how to practice the right way, what kind of energy to bring.