The young, charismatic coach of Virginia Commonwealth has endeared himself to basketball fans during the 2011 NCAA Tournament thanks to unlikely upsets of high-major programs such as Kansas, Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State.
Smart grew up playing the game of basketball, and his love for it led to him turning down admissions to Harvard and Yale for a chance to remain on the hardwood. The decision led to him attending Kenyon College, a small Division III school in Ohio, where he started at point guard. Smar was named a member of the 1999 All-USA Academic team by USA Today during his senior season at Kenyon, and he still holds the school's all-time assists record. He also left the school with a bachelor's degree in history, graduating magna cum laude.
Smart wasted no time transitioning to the bench, jumping to California University of Pennsylvania. There he worked as both an assistant coach and student, earning a Master's Degree in social science.
In 2001, Smart took over as Director of Basketball Operations at Dayton. He remained in the mid-major ranks for his next job as an assistant coach for Akron, which he held from 2003-2006. He got his break into the high-major ranks in 2006 when Oliver Purnell hired Smart as an assistant at Clemson.
It was during his two years at Clemson that Smart developed his reputation as a strong recruiter and a sharp basketball mind. His work caught the eye of Billy Donovan as well, who hired Smart away from Clemson following the 2008 season. Smart would stay with the Gators for just one year though, as Anthony Grant's departure from VCU gave Smart his first head coaching job at the age of 31.
"Through the vetting process of hiring someone to lead our program, we spoke with some of the nation's top head and assistant coaches, men who came highly recommended from the biggest names in college basketball," said VCU Athletic Director Norwood Teague. "Shaka stood out amongst all of them. In Shaka, we have found someone who we knew without a shadow of a doubt could continue the excellence established by VCU basketball."
In his first season he was the 10th youngest head coach in Division I, but despite his youth he guided the Rams to a 27-10 record. VCU missed out on both the NCAA and NIT, but accepted an invitation to play in the CBI tournament which the Rams won.
Despite losing forward Larry Sanders to the NBA draft, Smart followed up his first year with an even better season in 2010-2011. The Rams lost 11 games but finished 4th in the conference, good enough to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. Some questioned the selection, but VCU had notable road wins over programs such as UCLA and Wichita State which pleased the selection committee.
VCU opened the tournament by knocking off USC in essentially the play-in game, and then the Rams upset 6th-seeded Georgetown and 3rd-seeded Purdue to earn the school's first-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance. But Smart and VCU didn't stop there, dropping 10th-seeded Florida State in overtime to advance to the Elite Eight where they pulled the biggest upset of the tournament, a 71-61 victory over No.1 seed Kansas.
Up next? A matchup with fellow mid-major Butler for a chance to win the NCAA Tournament title.
What Makes Him A Viable Candidate?
His recent NCAA Tournament success has put him on the map as the hot name in coaching right now, as his mix of personality and playing style have turned him into a candidate for just about every opening at the high-major level right now.
Smart deploys what he calls the "havoc" defense, a style he described as "wreaking havoc on our opponent's psyche and their plan of attack." The defense involves a mixture of full-court presses which are used to force tempo and disrupt the opposition's ability to get into their offensive sets. Smart also uses an up-tempo offensive attack that is focused on pushing the basketball and knocking down perimeter shots.
He's also a highly intelligent, cerebral coach who has been a student of the game as long as he's been playing. He's managed to get his players to play hard for 40 minutes despite being underdogs in all five of its NCAA Tournament wins.
At 33, he has the upside age-wise that Yow is looking for. She has stated that she wants a coach who would be in Raleigh 10-to-15 years, and Smart has that type of potential.
He has demonstrated the ability to win in the postseason. Yow indicated that she wants a coach capable of winning in postseason play, and Smart is now 10-0 in postseason games his two seasons as a head coach after winning the CBI last year and leading VCU to the Final Four this year.
Finally, it's a good fit from a location and recruiting standpoint. VCU landed two players last year from North Carolina in Reco McCarter and Juvante Reddic, so Smart and his staff are familiar with recruitng the state. He has worked in Virginia and South Carolina, so a move to North Carolina wouldn't be a difficult change for him and his wife, Maya.
What Makes Him A Longshot?
The ultimate question with Smart is this – is five big-time wins enough evidence?
Because essentially, those wins are what turned Smart from a down-the-list candidate to potential hire. He's never won his league's regular season title or conference tournament. He lost seven and six games in league play respectively over his first two seasons.
He's rocketed up the coaching ladder so fast that combined he only has three seasons of experience at the high-major level as an assistant. That could be construed as good or bad, but it certainly doesn't fit the criteria of an experienced program-builder that Yow mentioned she was looking for in her press conference.
Also, at this point he may not want to leave VCU. He has taken his team to the Final Four, and while he only makes $325,000 you know that VCU will offer what they can to try and keep him in Richmond. His AD has already indicated that is the case.
"We're gonna' keep him," VCU AD Norwood Teague said today. "We just have to be proactive about it."
"We're going to get aggressive, obviously. (School president) Dr. (Michael) Rao and I have talked about it a lot and talked to Shaka that we're not going to talk about this until the season's over."
Maybe Smart enjoys living in Richmond and would prefer to stay another season at VCU. The bigger question might not be if NC State should go after him, it could be will he even leave VCU at this point?
Pack Pride's Take
There are a lot of things to like about Shaka Smart. He has the personality and playing style that would seem to fit perfectly at NC State.
He is charismatic and already has a reputation as a very good recruiter. The pieces are in place to push tempo and play his style with high-caliber guards Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown in Raleigh.
Smart had two years of experience in the ACC so he's somewhat familiar with the landscape, and he's recruited the NC area in the past so it wouldn't be brand new to him. You could easily compare Smart at this point in his career to Sean Miller five years ago when NC State was looking for a head coach.
But hiring him would be a risk... a pretty significant one. With that being said, nearly all coaching candidates are, particularly those venturing up from the mid-major level. If NC State goes that route, they likely won't find a better candidate than Shaka Smart.
If, and it might be a big if, he took the NC State job and won big in his first season (reach the NCAA Tournament), fresh off a Final Four season, he really could have things rolling in Raleigh given how well he should be able to recruit to the ACC school.