Controlled chaos and the man who leads it.
The nets have been cut down. The confetti has fallen, been picked up and thrown out. One Shining Moment has played. The 2013-14 college basketball season has ended but the fun isn’t over yet.
Well technically, the fun is over for some fired coaches but for us fans the moves made in the coming weeks help shape the landscape of next season. Think of how Kentucky’s fortunes changed when they dumped Billy Gillespie for John Calipari. They went from losing in the NIT to…well losing in the NIT … but there have been two trips to the NCAA title game book-ending that season. At least Kentucky went to play. Looking at you Indiana.
And at the heart of the coaching carousel is Shaka Khan.
Smart. Sorry. I meant to say Shaka Smart.
Smart doesn’t do him enough justice – this man is a coaching genius. His players go to battle for him, the fans buy his tee-shirts and college after college is trying to lure him away from VCU.
Fortunes of a college basketball team can change in an instant. Remember how happy Kansas was when Wiggins committed? Shaka Smart is the same sort of prize – he’s just being recruited by school presidents instead of coaches. Granted, they’d first have to lure him away from VCU which is unlikely at this point. It seems like every time he turns down a job, he gets a raise. That’s a job worth keeping. He turned down UCLA and Minnesota last season. He’s already turned down Marquette this offseason and now his name is in the Missouri rumor mill.
It’s not hard to see why this keeps happening; he’s the best coach in college basketball.
There were a lot of coaches I considered for that honor. Being an UConn alumnus, my first thought was Kevin Ollie. He did just win the championship as a 7 seed but he’s still too inexperienced. My runner up for best coach was Steve Fisher. He guided the original Fab 5 to consecutive finals and is still making Sweet 16s more than twenty years later with less talent than he had in Michigan.
But what makes a coach the best? His ability to recruit? His in-game adjustments? In my mind it’s his ability to get the most out of his players.
Space makes basketball fun. Space makes scoring easy. VCU doesn’t like when other teams have fun, so they give them no space to move. The push up on ball handlers and jump passing lanes. VCU players press and swarm all over the court. Basketball is supposed to be fun. When you have no space to move, basketball is zero fun. Most teams score a basket and run back letting the other team bring the ball to them. VCU takes the defense to the ball. If VCU can make you want to pick up your ball and go home they’ve won.
The best part about a press is that you don’t have to be an elite level defender to be effective in it. Smart doesn’t bring McDonalds All Americans to the VCU campus yet, but the players he does get can be molded into relentless defenders. You don’t have to be able to fight through screens. You don’t have to be able to block shots above the rim like VCU alumnus Larry Sanders. Smart has given these players a framework for chaos. All you need is effort.
And a lot of stamina. Which Smart builds in his players by making them go through Navy SEAL workouts. He makes the coaches go through them too. Referees will not be able to outrun these coaches. Like I said VCU doesn’t give anyone space.
More important than the stamina is the bonding. Making a team feel more like a family than an office builds camaraderie in the players. They’re all in this together. VCU isn’t at the level to recruit one-and-done players yet and that’s probably a good thing. With guys staying all four years, the family atmosphere grows and it gives older guys the opportunity to mentor the freshman.
At the end of the day the proof is in the win/loss total and Shaka Smart has won almost 75% of the games he’s coached in his five years at VCU. He’s won when he wasn’t supposed to and he’s won as a favorite (this year’s SF Austin loss notwithstanding). He’s got three ESPN top 100 recruits signed for next year compared to the zero he had in 2011.
Chaos is a ladder and Shaka Smart has used it to climb VCU into the national consciousness. He must be doing something right if every college wants to hire him.