(Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

Virginia Commonwealth sits tied for first place in the Atlantic 10 conference once again. At 11-2 in league play and 21-5 overall, the Rams appear to be on the verge of locking up yet another NCAA Tournament bid. They’ve made it to March Madness every year since 2011, when they danced all the way to a surprising Final Four berth.

The coach during that Final Four run, Shaka Smart, gets a lot of the credit for pushing mid-major VCU to heights unseen. But the years before his arrival and after his departure may tell a different story now.

VCU has bounced around conferences quite a bit since moving to Division I basketball in 1973. Along with an early stint as an independent, the Rams have played in the Sun Belt, the Metro Conference, the CAA and recently, the A-10. The stops may look different, but the program has not. They’ve won 870 games and nine conference tournament championships (in three different leagues) in a pretty short amount of time.

When Smart arrived in 2009-10, Anthony Grant had just departed to Alabama. Grant led VCU to three seasons of 24 wins or more, plus two NCAA bids. Before Grant, Jeff Capel led the program for four years, winning at least 19 each year and earning one tourney bid. He left for Oklahoma, where he coached from 2006-11. He’s the likely successor to Coach K at Duke now.

Smart, to his credit, guided the Rams to a higher ceiling than either of his predecessors. In six years in Richmond, Va., he went 163-56. VCU won two conference tournaments and the 2010 CBI (despite a 27-9 record), moved up to the A-10 and of course, went from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. The Rams spent time ranked among the top 10-15 teams in the nation in each of his last two years there, despite eventual early losses in the NCAA Tournament.

But in the nearly two years since then, the program and Smart have seemingly moved in opposite directions.

Under Will Wade, VCU is 46-17 and about to earn yet another tournament bid. Under Smart, the Texas Longhorns are 30-29. They’d need to win the Big 12 championship to get into the postseason this year given their 10-16 record.

Smart still has some time to fix things in Austin. But in two years’ time, it does appear that some of his strengths as head coach of VCU may have come from the job itself.

Despite VCU’s advantageous location in Richmond, they’ve rarely been ones to lock down the surrounding area’s top talent. The Richmond-Norfolk-Hampton-Newport News area produces a sizeable number of blue-chippers each year. The famed Oak Hill Academy, which regularly churns out top college and pro talent, is right in Norfolk.

(Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

But the lack of incoming local talent hasn’t stopped the Rams from pulling in better-than-expected classes from Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes are both ranked among the nation’s 45 best, and they included one total player from VA (four-star small forward De’Riante Jenkins).

The athletic department itself has improved its brand nationally, signing a $200,000 annual sponsorship deal with Learfield Sports back in 2015. On a local level, the team has sold out 97 straight games at the Siegel Center (capacity: 7,693). The Rams are the local pro team in an area that doesn’t have one any closer than Washington D.C. – while the greater Richmond area itself is a top-50 market with over 1.2 million residents.

VCU has fans, resources (including a $25 million practice facility), name recognition and success that arrived long before Smart and appear to be getting along fine without him and the specific brand of “havoc” he instilled.

For Smart, “havoc” and the full-court press mentality that came with it has been a struggle outside of Richmond. Texas ranks 204th in opponent turnover percentage per KenPom.com, does not play with tempo (159th) and fails to make threes at a rate commensurate with the style of play Smart requires (UT’s 337th in three-point percentage).

For comparison’s sake, the Rams are 24th in opponent turnover percentage, though the other “havoc” figures have fallen off a bit since Smart’s departure.

Texas is getting better defensively, even without the turnovers (23rd overall in terms of efficiency), but you can see the struggles for Smart and his staff as they compare to what he had at VCU – and what VCU’s been able to do without him.

More often than not, budgets do win out eventually in these situations. The Longhorns and their astronomical appetite for athletic spending have the money to back whatever Smart needs to make this work. But there are still no guarantees, even with those kinds of resources. That’s why Texas was in the market for a coach in the first place. It hasn’t always worked just because of the money.

In the meantime, the Rams and their miniscule (by comparison) funds will continue to find success in Richmond under Wade or whoever takes over next once Wade’s success brings other suitors. At this point, Virginia Commonwealth has established a culture of winning that’s not going away. Whether it’s Capel, Grant, Smart, Wade or another name on the sidelines, the program’s identity (and success) seems like one of college basketball’s few certainties.

About John Cassillo

John Cassillo covers all things Syracuse sports (and beer) as managing editor of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician. An SU alum, he hasn't missed an Orange football game since 2006, despite his better judgment. John lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife, and his dog who's named after Jim Boeheim.

4 thoughts on “Did Shaka Smart make VCU so good, or did the job make the coach?

  1. Great article, a few corrections though. VCU is getting $2,000,000/yr, not 200k. Oak Hill is not in SW VA, not Norfolk & Jenkins is from SC, not VA.

  2. Nice written article and die-hard Texas fans (pencil me in) are starting to wonder if Shaka Smart is our basketball version of Charlie Strong. A young, energetic coach can look good on paper and at previous positions but a closer look at Shaka’s background (your article) and how Strong’s success can be tied to Teddy Bridgewater’s presence may be more revealing than we otherwise want.

    Texas will always be a football school but Rick Barnes took the hoops program to the tourney in something like 16 of 17 years. Texas’s basketball program plateaued in Barnes’ last few years, so Texas’ money boys bought the shiniest toy on the shelf in Shaka Smart.

    Next season is Texas’ opportunity to shine, assuming Smart can take a top incoming point guard and have him navigate a still young squad through the treacherous Big XII. By this time next year, Smart will have revealed himself, one way or the other.

  3. I went to VCU back in the early 1990s, when VCU were members of the Metro Conference…the Metro was a nice conference with the likes of Memphis State, VA Tech, South Carolina, FSU, and so forth…VCU generally was a “middle of the pack” program, but would occasionally notch victories against some of the conference heavy weights..back then, the biggest problem VCU has was expanding its fan base outside of the local VCU alumni/partisans, the entire city was not behind VCU like it is today…they played in the Richmond Coliseum, which was a 1970s style mini “Astro-dome” type facility…frankly, the atmosphere sucked, but VCU’s teams weren’t bad, some might recall a few sweet 16 runs in the early 1980s (Pre-Metro days, Sun Belt, another nice conference too)…still, as a fan, I knew VCU had a higher ceiling provided the university continued to build momentum (which it has), and provided some sort of on-campus basketball facility could be built…well, we know whats happened there…in the early 2000s, VCU finally constructed a near perfect on-campus facility; however, once the Metro disbanded, VCU (and Virginia Tech) were both jettisoned from the Metro…VCU would wind up in the lower tier (and more regional) Colonial conference, which was downgrade, but the CAA affiliation worked out well overall, regularly playing teams like ODU, GMU, UR and so forth garnered the attention of the fan base…so, fast forward, the Final Four run finally put VCU on the map, and the University was able to make the jump to a near perfect conference, the A10…the arena is packed for every home game, and during hoops season, VCU is the only game in town…and regardless of who they are playing, if it’s a home game, the arena is sold out…

  4. Nice research Castillo. Did not know that Oak Hill was in Norfolk. Always thought it was in Mouth of Wilson, VA. You know, the western part of the state. In the immortal words of Skinner, “Prove me wrong….”

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