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Rising star Smart fuels VCU's crazy run with characteristic conviction

HOUSTON -- On Sunday night, after Virginia Commonwealth University had reached the Final Four by razing No. 1 Kansas, 71-61, I met the coach who'd shocked the nation in a moment of rare quiet. Shaka Smart stood in the back corner of the VCU locker room, several feet behind the screen he'd used to project a montage of pundits unanimously predicting a Jayhawks victory before the game. Such ploys, of course, have become Smart's signature; weeks earlier, back home in Richmond, the passionate 33-year-old had taken a lighter to the February page of his desk calendar and made the then-struggling Rams watch it burn. Now Smart was eating a banana in front of his locker, wrapping up one of the greatest months in sports history, and I couldn't help but ask the first thing that came to mind.

"Is this easily the best day of your life?" I wondered.

Smart -- who'd taken the shorn Alamodome net off his neck and undone the top few buttons of his blue dress shirt -- replied instantly, and with characteristic conviction. "Best day of my life?" he said. "No."

Pressed as to what could possibly rank above the most improbable Final Four berth ever, Smart, who is about 5-foot-10, took another bite of his banana. A sly smile spread across his face.

"Best day of my life?" Smart repeated. He paused dramatically, surveying his assistants and managers, before continuing: "These guys don't even know this ..."

And in seconds, the room would celebrate again.

*****

At this point, in this tournament, we know approximately one thing, and one thing only: Shaka Smart will surprise you.

Let's even leave aside the four-game run to the Elite Eight, during which 11th-seeded VCU went from First Four intruder -- an ostensible cameo for which they were widely maligned -- to a team with scalps from the Pac-10 (USC), Big East (Georgetown), Big Ten (Purdue) and ACC (Florida State). Sunday's upset of Big 12 superpower Kansas, the tournament's lone remaining No. 1 seed, obliterated every sort of conventional wisdom all on its own.

Just how many advantages did the Jayhawks boast against VCU? Well, Kansas had the crowd. (The Alamodome was so loud and so pro-Kansas, Rams forward Jamie Skeen would say, that he often couldn't hear Smart call plays.) Kansas had the talent. (Two potential first-round picks, Thomas Robinson and Josh Selby, were Kansas reserves; VCU had zero players with such NBA pedigree.) Kansas had the odds. (VCU was an 11-point underdog that night, not to mention a 0.03 percent shot to even make the Final Four on Selection Sunday.)

And yet the first half ended with VCU holding a 41-27 lead, and disbelief coated the faces of so many disillusioned hacks on press row, myself included. In fact, I admit that I'd been hedging my reporting all weekend: that afternoon I'd already prepared a file for SI on the two KU senior guards, Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar, and had coordinated a meeting with Tyrel's gracious father, Stacy, at halftime via text message. But now, just 20 minutes in, said file shrunk to a shameful close on my laptop, and at intermission I instead wandered through the hallway outside the Rams locker room, hoping for extra insight.

As it happened, Smart was standing right where I had hoped to linger, customarily huddling and reviewing the game plan with his trio of assistant coaches outside the locker room doors. When they finally entered to meet their charges, I found that at hallway-range I could only overhear the staff's loudest screamers:

• "Twenty minutes! Twenty minutes and we're going to the Final Four! They're not done yet!" (KU would ultimately pull within two, 44-46, at 13:13, at which point VCU counterpunched with a 9-2 run from which the Jayhawks never recovered.)

• "Balls on the floor? F------ dive on it!" (KU would outrebound VCU, 45-35 -- their only significant statistical advantage of the game.)

• "Jamie got 11 shots last half. That's good. But we need more. Feed him! FEED HIM!" (Skeen would wind up with 26 points and 10 rebounds when the horn sounded, outclassing KU's identical Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff. Incidentally, one of the Morrii -- both projected first-rounders -- had told Skeen during the pregame handshake, "Ya'll had a nice run. Now it's time for you to go home.")

Then, finally, all together: "One! Two! Three! KILL!"

After the game, inside the locker room, I would ask various players and assistants about what was said at halftime, and how effective it was, and also which coaches had said those things that bled through the doorway. I was informed, very matter-of-factly, that all the voices I imagined I'd heard belonged to one person: Coach Smart.

*****

One morning two years ago, in a booth at the 43rd Street Deli & Breakfast House in Gainesville, Fla., Norwood Teague sat down for a 6 a.m. interview with Shaka Smart. Smart, then 31, had arrived in town just 10 months prior as a freshly hired assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida, and he wasn't looking to leave town just yet. But he did want to run his own team one day -- "He was always looking forward to the opportunity to have his own program," Smart's wife, Maya, said -- and here came Teague, VCU's athletic director, who'd hired the outgoing Rams coach, Anthony Grant, from Donovan's staff, a few years earlier.

About 45 minutes into his conversation with Smart, Teague wanted to stop the interview. "I almost stopped Shaka and said, 'Look, let's not waste our time. Go back, get Maya, get a plane, let's go. We'll have a press conference,' " Teague said, laughing. "I'm thinking, This is ridiculous. This is our guy." Instead, in a nod to proper protocol, VCU waited all of a day to make a formal offer.

Teague had been impressed -- as Donovan was, and Oliver Purnell was at Clemson and Dayton before that -- by many things about Smart, but mainly his level of preparation and ability to articulate a vision. Smart talked, at length and in detail, about style of play ("Havoc," he calls his frenetic press); the staff he wanted to hire (Teague, who'd been scoping out assistants as potential candidates, already knew many of the names); and what Smart considered his own strengths in recruiting, leading to the unveiling of the one object he'd brought with him to the diner. Smart handed Teague a 31-page tome that he calls his recruiting philosophy, a document constructed over his time at Florida and Clemson. "[Teague] probably never even read it all," Smart would tell me later. "It's really long and boring."

Such a document, though, is vintage Smart, and not even the thickest tome the coach has assembled. That honor goes to the constantly updated collection of quotes on his computer, started while he was an assistant to Purnell at Clemson. It is currently over 100 pages long, and includes aphorisms that exhort him to "Be strong in body, clean in mind, lofty in ideals" (James Naismith) and "Dwell in possibility" (Emily Dickinson).

It might seem cheesy, but when you look at Smart's path to Houston you can't deny that such words have taken hold. Smart, the son of a white mother and black father (his dad left the family when he was a teen), was a barely recruited former point guard out of Oregon, Wisc. He was admitted to Harvard and Yale but chose instead to play basketball at Division III Kenyon College, where he became the school's all-time assists leader and graduated magna cum laude in history. In 1999, when Smart opted to become an assistant to his former coach at Kenyon, Bill Brown, at tiny California University in Pennsylvania, his former professors lamented a squandered future in academia. "But I think everybody's pretty bought in now," said Maya, a Harvard grad with a degree from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, who met Shaka when he was an assistant at the University of Akron in 2005. "He's still teaching. It's just a different setting."

And his players aren't the only ones being forced to listen. "I tell you what," Smart would say. "I love those guys on TV. But if those prognosticators were judged on their record picking games the way that coaches are judged on their record winning games, they would be fired. I'm not calling for anyone to be fired, at all, but let's take a look at what's happened here."

His current employers already have. "Someday," Teague said, thinking back to that early morning in Gainesville, "we're going to have to put a plaque in that booth."

*****

By necessity, though, Teague's mind has been occupied this week by the unfortunate flip side to his school's historic run: namely that Smart -- like Grant, who just led Alabama to a second-place finish in the NIT -- will be lured away to the next, bigger job. In only two years, after all, Smart has done more than make Rams history (reaching the school's first Sweet 16, his initial goal). He's also pulled off a feat that no other coach has even conceived of: going all the way to the Final Four from the First Four.

George Mason's 2006 run to the Final Four as an 11 seed was mind-blowing, yes, and seminal. But VCU's five-game streak is, if nothing else, longer by a game and that much more impossible. Smart, who is 24 years younger than Jim Larranaga was in '06 -- young enough to "bop his head to rap music," Rams forward Bradford Burgess noted -- is the 1-in-30,000 shot come true. And one day soon, the coach will be handsomely rewarded for it.

"But I think this may help keep him here," Teague says of the Final Four berth, with no small trace of hope in his voice. "He values a basketball school. He's talked to me incessantly about how the stuff we do supporting basketball at VCU is special, even compared to high majors. Heck, he and I have already talked long and hard about things we want to do after the season. A lot of it hasn't been about him, because he's so selfless. But there's going to be a lot done about him, brought on by me."

In fact, what has happened is so dramatic that one must wonder if the tide has turned. Will America now pick VCU against Brad Stevens' Bulldogs tomorrow? Do people finally believe that the recently mediocre Rams can win a national title?

"I really don't care," Smart said. "If they pick against us, we will use it as motivation. And if they pick us?" Here the coach paused and laughed -- and it sounded as if, for the first time this entire month, he was unprepared. "Uh," Smart continued, "we'll figure out another form of motivation."

*****

Which brings us to the best day in Smart's life. At this point on Sunday night his assistants and managers had all gathered in the locker room's rear area, scrambling to pack up for the victorious flight back to Richmond. But it became plain that even now, during our interview, Shaka Smart could still work a room.

"These guys don't even know this," he had said. "Best day of my life was a couple months ago."

Dramatic pause.

"I found out my wife's pregnant."

The VCU assistants and managers who could overhear their boss talking stopped what they were doing, collectively staggered. The child, Smart said, was due in September. "[Shaka] was the one who wanted to keep it a secret," Maya would tell me later. "I was like, I think people can tell ..."

Yet no one ever did, of course, and suddenly word spread. The back area of the locker room exploded in a new hail of whoops and cheers and hugs. "CONGRATS! WAY TO GO! BIG GUY'S GETTING IT DONE!"

A while later I'd watch Smart walk out into the Alamodome hallway with Maya, only about 60 feet ahead of defeated Kansas coach (and former national champion) Bill Self. Both Shaka and Maya wore big grins, his arm interlocked with hers, and the regional final net was back around his neck.

This had been an unequivocally great day in a month full of them. But for the coach who shocked the world, another, even crazier thing was clear, too: The best is yet to come.

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