Smart Brings Youthful Zest To Coaching

With the Bruce Weber era at Illinois now finished, Fighting Illini athletic director Mike Thomas has begun searching for a replacement. It won't be an easy task for Thomas, who has much pressure on him from the fan base to make a big-name hire. One candidate most fans would appear to accept is VCU's Shaka Smart. This is the first of a series of coach profiles.

Virginia Commonwealth head coach Shaka Smart is on everyone's hot list for potential candidates to become the next head coach at Illinois. Smart, who is just 35 years old, has compiled a record of 83-27 in his three years at VCU, which includes consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

Smart's roots in basketball began as s three-year starter at Oregon High School in Wisconsin. He was second-team All-Conference as a senior and left Oregon as the all-time assists leader for a career (458), season (201), and single game (20).

Smart then continued his playing career at Kenyon College from 1995-1999. He was All-Conference as a Kenyon senior and became the school's career assists leader with 542. He was also successful in the classroom, being named to the 1999 USA TODAY All-USA Academic Team.

Smart's coaching career began to take form at California University (PA) as an assistant coach from 1999-2001. During this period, the school went 40-16. He also earned his master's degree in Social Science.

The next stop for Smart came at Dayton University, where he was Director of Basketball Operations from 2001-2003. Dayton finished with a total record of 45-17 over those two years, which included an Atlantic 10 Championship and NCAA bid in 2003.

Akron followed Dayton, this time as an assistant coach, from 2003-2006. In the 2005-2006 season, Akron finished 23-10, the highest win total since it became a Division I program in 1980. Also, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas was AD at Akron for a short period while Smart was an assistant there.

Smart then moved on to Clemson as an assistant two years. He helped Clemson gather 49 wins during his tenure. In his second year, Clemson started the season 17-0, a school record. But, they stumbled at the finish, ending the season 25-11. However, the Tigers still managed to make an appearance in the NIT championship game.

Smart shared a big recruiting role at Clemson as well. He was credited for helping land top-100 recruits Catalin Baciu, Terrence Oglesby and Milton Jennings.

Smart's last spot as an assistant came at Florida under Billy Donovan for the 2008-2009 season, where the Gators went 25-11 and captured an NIT quarterfinal appearance. Just like at Clemson, Smart was a successful recruiter, helping Florida land a top-25 recruiting class via Scout.com.

Smart landed his first head coaching gig Virginia Commonwealth. In his first season, VCU finished with 27 wins and were CBI champions.

That season was overshadowed by last year's magical run. After finishing the regular season 24-10, fourth place in the Colonial Athletic Association, VCU took the college basketball world by surprise. While many believed they didn't even belong in the NCAA Tournament, they grabbed an 11-seed and had to beat USC in a play-in game to make the main 64-team tournament.

They were victorious against USC and then went on to beat the sixth-seeded Georgetown Hoyas, third-seeded Purdue, tenth-seeded Florida State, and top-seeded Kansas to make a Final Four appearance. The nbelievable run was ended by Butler.

It was a season Smart will never forget. Not only did the Rams tie a school-record 28 wins, but he also received the Fritz Pollard and Clarence Gaines National Coach of the Year Awards. VCU was ranked sixth in the final ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, tying a school and conference high.

This season, Smart has led VCU to a 28-6 record and another NCAA Tournament appearance by winning the CAA conference tournament. The twelfth-seeded VCU Rams will face fifth-seeded Wichita State Thursday night in Portland.

Smart has recently become one of the hottest mid-major coaches. He has many qualities that make him appealing, beginning with his impressive overall record as head coach and incredible Final Four run last year. But, his coaching style may make him especially intriguing.

Smart plays a brand of up-tempo basketball he refers to as "havoc." On defense, that includes full-court press and very active defense designed to interrupt offensive flow. On offense, he runs dribble-drive, penetrating with the basketball and encouraging transition. His style of play is built for athletes, which may be attractive to recruits.

If Mike Thomas wants to make a splash with this hire, Shaka Smart is someone who would likely qualify, at least in the eyes of many fans.

WHY HE WOULD HE WOULD BE A GOOD HIRE:

He is young, energetic and African-American, which are all attractive qualities; he has been a successful recruiter; he has head coaching experience and plays an up-tempo, exciting brand of basketball.

WHY HE MAY NOT BE A GOOD HIRE:

Will he be able to recruit at a high major college? Is he ready to coach in the Big Ten? His style of basketball may not work in the Big Ten, so some adjustments may be required.


Illini Inquirer Top Stories