When VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart sat down to watch the NCAA tournament selection show on CBS, he was focusing not on the immediate future but the distant one. Like everyone else, Smart assumed his team was headed to the NIT, not the NCAA tournament, thanks to a season-ending pratfall during which his team lost five of its last eight games. Having decided against gathering his team en masse to watch the show - "I didn't want that disappointment to be the defining moment of our season," he says - Smart instead asked his five freshmen to watch it alone with him in his office. "I wasn't trying to give out cruel and unusual punishment," he says with a chuckle. "I wanted to use it as a teachable moment."
During the first segment of the show, Smart saw UAB pop up as an at-large entrant in the newly expanded opening-round, i.e. the "First Four." Smart's mind turned to VCU's game at UAB the previous December, when the Rams had blown a nine-point lead with two minutes to play to lose by three. "Remember those guys?" he said to his freshmen, the teacher seizing the moment. With two of the four at-large spots available in the first round now taken, Smart was even more certain his team would not make the field.
Imagine his surprise when, towards the end of the show, the words "Virginia Commonwealth" appeared on the screen. "It was like a moment from a movie. Everything slowed down," he says. Smart and his staff celebrated so exuberantly that it wasn't until about ten minutes later that he asked someone whom his team was going to play. (The answer was USC.) Many of Smart's players didn't even bother watching the show, yet the good news traveled fast. Their season, which was on life support just hours before, had been miraculously resurrected.
VCU's inclusion into the field was as controversial as it was shocking. During the post-selection show analysis on ESPN, Jay Bilas pilloried the NCAA basketball committee by asking, "Do they even know the ball is round?" He was by no means alone, but that incredulity paled compared to the reactions to what transpired over the following weeks. Smart likes to refer to his end-to-end, press-run-and-shoot system as "havoc," and that's exactly what his team wreaked on the 2011 NCAA tournament. VCU shocked one power conference titan after another: first USC, then Georgetown, then Purdue, then Florida State, and finally Kansas, the southwest region's number one seed and the pick of many of those same incredulous commentators to win the national championship. That made the Rams just the second No. 11 seed in history to reach the Final Four.
America loves an underdog, and for three weeks in March, the nation was smitten with Shaka Smart and his VCU Rams. This underdog was no docile Labrador or shiny-haired collie. It was, rather, a cold, wet, mangy mutt -- one that had been spit on, stepped on, put upon, and kicked to the curb by all those so-called experts in their temperature-controlled studios. For proving so many people so wrong, for reminding us of the incomparable power of belief, for delighting and enchanting and entertaining us, for seizing one teachable moment after another, and for putting together the most improbable Final Four run in the 72-year history of the NCAA tournament, the VCU Smart Alecks are my choice to be Sports Illustrated's 2011 Sportsmen of the Year.
Amazingly, only one of VCU's five wins in the tournament was decided by fewer than ten points. That was the Sweet Sixteen matchup against Florida State, which culminated with a perfectly executed baseline inbounds play at the end of overtime. Smart keeps a picture in his office of his team's bench that was snapped just as the buzzer sounded that night. "You can see the crowd behind the bench, primarily Kansas fans, and they're cheering like crazy," he says. "Are they cheering because they adopted us for the night, or are they cheering because they're glad that Kansas is playing VCU instead of Florida State?"
The Rams' magic carpet ride was choc full of such memorable images. There was the moment when Smart collapsed in a tearful heap into his mother's arms after his team had knocked off third-seeded Purdue to advance to the school's first-ever Sweet Sixteen. ("I'm a pretty emotional guy but I usually don't just lose it like that," he says.) There were the made-for-TV locker room speeches in which Smart reminded his players that many people thought they didn't belong. ("What are they gonna say about us now?" he kept asking.) There were the postgame dance routines performed by freshman forward Heath Houston, which got zanier and funnier with each iteration. There was the morning of the Kansas game when the players awoke to find a string of a basketball net tied to their hotel doors, courtesy of assistant coach Mike Rhoades.
If Rhoades's purpose was to instill confidence, then his tactic was redundant. "We just had one of those groups that really thought we could have beaten anyone," Smart says. "If we had played the Lakers, they would have thought they could beat Kobe. Sometimes it takes having a few guys with an almost unrealistic level of confidence to make that type of run."
In the end, it hardly mattered that VCU's season ended in Houston not on Monday night but Saturday night, when it lost in the semifinal to Butler, 70-62. Simply the fact that they made it to Houston was epic enough.
After the Rams returned to Richmond, Smart again proved the experts wrong by turning down an offer from N.C. State that would have paid him north of $2 million per year. One week after the national championship game, VCU announced it had signed Smart to an eight-year contract extension. "I just couldn't see parlaying that last three or four weeks into some big-time job," he says. "I really felt that would have cheapened the reward of the Final Four, for everyone involved."
Smart may only be 34 years old, but he is wise beyond his years. He knew that what he and his players had just accomplished was unique, special, historic. Yet, Smart is also quick to parry the predictions from those same experts - do they even know the ball is round? - who now insist that a First Four-to-the-Final-Four run will never happen again. For starters, he points out that the winners of the first round at-large games are placed into the bracket as an 11 or 12 seed, which means they do not have to play a top-two seed until the Sweet Sixteen. That's an easier road than the one that faces an 8 or 9 seed, which is pitted against a No. 1 in its second game.
Beyond that, Smart believes it's possible because nobody believed it was possible the first time. In his case, many people believed it shouldn't have happened at all. So who's to say a First-Four-to-the-Final-Four run will never happen again? Certainly not me. The Smart Alecks provided plenty of teachable moments in 2011, reminding us over and over that nothing is impossible, nobody knows anything, and never is a long, long time.