Seemingly every NCAA Tournament turns some mid-major coach into a star, and this year is no different. In a normal year Richmond’s Chris Mooney would be that coach, and while he’s probably the most likely to convert his success into immediate big dollars, he’s no match for the personality and catchy name of VCU’s head man Shaka Smart. FSU fans should be familiar with the 33 year old coach, as he was an assistant at both Clemson and Florida. Smart was the 2nd coach in a row VCU hired away from Billy Donovan, as Shaka replaced Anthony Grant when he left for Alabama.
Coach Smart teaches an unorthodox style of basketball which he nicknamed "havoc." His teams press the entire game and then thrive offensively in open court, busted play situations. When it works it’s impressive to watch and they can play with anyone in the country (ask USC, Georgetown and Purdue). When it’s not working they have lost to several terrible teams including South Florida, Georgia State and Northeastern. Luckily for Smart, after struggling down the stretch losing four of five to close the regular season, his kids are suddenly playing the best they’ve played all year.
Radio and TV has been abuzz about VCU, and have been spreading some mistruths. Despite what you’re hearing the talking heads claim, VCU does not operate at a high tempo, nor do they play particularly good defense. While FSU drew two crawling teams in the opening rounds, VCU plays slightly faster but still comes in at 201st in the country. Only once in the past 26 games have they played a 70+ possession contest (compared to 10 for FSU over the same timespan). Defensively they come in ranked 111th. The other 15 teams remaining all rank in the top 75.
So what have they done right in order to make the Sweet 16? First, after being seeded into a play-in game, the beat an average Southen Cal team in a grinding, ugly, 59 possession game. Final score was 59-46. They won because they extended their possessions by being +10 on the offensive glass, and they outscored the Trojans from beyond the arc 27-3. Then once in to the field of 64 they played two games completely out of their minds. Against Georgetown they buried 12-25 threes, and outscored the Hoyas by 15 at the line (getting 39 attempts!), and won 74-56. Purdue was up next, and VCU’s game plan – which typically lives and dies by the three – caught Matt Painter off guard as VCU spread out the Boilermaker defense and attacked the lane (exactly what ND did against us by trying to pull Bernard James out to the perimeter). The game plan worked to perfection and Purdue fans watched in horror as their coach never made a single adjustment. VCU began the game making layups, and ended the game making layups, and nothing was ever done about it. They shot 66% on 2-pointers and 84% from the line, and completely dominated Purdue in a 94-76 win.
So in 80 minutes of basketball they've outscored the 8th place Big East team and 2nd place Big Ten team 168-132. (I’ll resist a ‘VCU Shaka’d the World’ comment). If VCU continues at this pace it's likely that FSU will become their 4th straight Big 6 victim.
So what will a VCU/FSU game likely look like? And what do the VCU players bring to the court? Tune in this week for in-depth coverage of FSU's first Sweet 16 game since the big screen premier of Jurassic Park.