The Case for Shaka

Virginia Commonwealth head coach Shaka Smart runs an up-tempo system that could play well with the kind of talent available to UCLA basketball...

John Wooden: "Why do teams use a pressing defense? At UCLA, we chose to use it for two primary reasons. One was to avoid getting stuck in a half-court game in which the opposition could dictate the pace and-even if outmanned-reduce the number of possessions to keep the score close. Two, we believed the press allowed us to exploit opponents who were not fundamentally sound in their spacing, cutting, passing, and dribbling."

Any number of coaches can come to UCLA and win. Billy Donovan, Brad Stevens, Rick Pitino—any of these coaches can, and likely would, have great success at UCLA, for reasons you all know (namely, any above average coach could succeed at UCLA, thanks to the talent in the region and the name brand). The question, though, is who has the best chance to win the most, and continue to develop the brand of UCLA basketball so that its future more closely resembles the glory days of the program rather than the last 35 years. For my purposes, that candidate is Shaka Smart.

For a quick outline of Smart—the VCU head coach is 35, has been with the Rams for the last four years, and in that time has compiled a record of 111-36. He made the Final Four in his second year, and lost by two points to four-seed Indiana last season in the second round as a twelve seed. He is a magna cum laude graduate from a small liberal arts college in Ohio called Kenyon College (earned acceptance to Harvard, Yale, and Brown) and played point guard there, setting many school records. He also earned a post-graduate scholarship and a master's degree in social science from California State University of Pennsylvania. Smart, clearly, is unusually well-educated for a college basketball coach, something that would appeal to UCLA's academia, and represent UCLA's academic reputation well. He's been known to quote Shakespeare in a press conference. His wife, too, is a professional writer and alumna of both Harvard and Northwestern. Plus, he's not just cerebral but athletic himself, once participating in a week of grueling Navy SEAL training with his VCU team.

The most important part of Smart's makeup, though, is his style of basketball. Smart runs a very up-tempo brand of basketball, based on aggressive, full-court pressing and man defense, followed by a fast break offense that emphasizes finding good, high-value shots (with a heavy emphasis on three pointers). He plays this style with, mostly, the marginal local basketball players who don't choose to go to Duke, UNC, Virginia, Georgetown, and other basketball powers in the area. The beauty of an up-tempo system is that it maximizes the total number of possessions in the game—if you, as a coach, feel you have more talent than the other team, and feel that your team is better coached on fundamentals, running up tempo helps to eliminate the variance of luck because there are more possessions during each game for your talent to win out. It also forces the other team (which, in modern basketball, likely means a slower-paced team) to play at your tempo, where they are most likely uncomfortable. Playing up tempo speaks to a level of confidence in the system.

At VCU, though, Smart is occasionally out-talented by other teams (as we all saw against Michigan), which will happen when you run that kind of system with that lower level of talent. The more important side to the style argument is this: at UCLA, Smart will not be running his trademark "Havoc" style of basketball with marginal players. Instead, he'll have access to the best talent in the state of California, which produces some of the best talent in the country. In short, he won't often, if ever, face teams that have more talent than he does, and with his style, playing with UCLA-level talent could lead to not only winning a lot of games, but potentially winning them in big fashion, and creating what could become a juggernaut.

College basketball has been trending toward more conservative offensive and defensive systems over the last 10 to 15 years. What that conservatism does, though, is create a situation where there are fewer possessions in every game and thus greater variance (e.g. a less talented team only needs to beat you over 120 possessions rather than 140). For undertalented teams, this is a great way to play because, if you shoot well and the other team goes cold, you have a better chance of winning before the talent of the other team wins out. For more talented teams, you run into issues where you don't blow the less talented teams off the court and become prone to upsets. In either case, it's, ideally, not the type of system you'd want at a place like UCLA, where the talent level could potentially overwhelm other teams.

Smart's Havoc system has a chance to be a hot, innovative force in modern college basketball. The press forces other teams to play to a fast tempo, in a style they're not trained for in today's game. With the way college basketball has trended toward a slow-down style, Smart's Havoc defense, with UCLA-level talent, could become a revolutionary trend in college basketball, the equivalent of Chip Kelly's blur offense in college football.

VCU, never a basketball power, has sold out the majority of its home games the last two years, and that's largely due to the success that Smart has had and the style with which the Rams play. It's attractive basketball, and appeals to the idea that quickness, rather than height and strength, is the ultimate hallmark of good basketball. If you're looking for the coach that more closely embodies Wooden and his style, it's actually Smart and not Stevens, who runs a methodical style. Wooden ran a fullcourt press because it kept other teams playing at his pace and because he was confident that his teams played with better fundamentals than others. Smart operates with the same belief, and his success with VCU level talent speaks volumes.

It should go without saying the kind of success that Smart could have with recruiting: a young, educated, African-American coach who has risen to the pinnacle of his profession coaching a wildly attractive style that so many players would want to play in. In Los Angeles, in the homes of parents, he could be a potentially devastating recruiter. Nothing is guaranteed, since he hasn't recruited LA before, but as a gamble, it's a fairly safe bet. He's recruited at this level before, being an assistant under Billy Donovan at Florida before taking the VCU job, so he would be familiar with the nuances of recruiting elite high-major recruits.

There is always a big question, too, if a coach is a good fit at a prospective program, and that's a valid concern. No matter how successful at a particular program, some coaches just aren't suited for other programs and their environments, and that has to be a consideration with the UCLA head coaching position. Smart, as we said, has been an assistant at a high-major level. He has, unlike Stevens, expressed no concerns with moving into a big-city, major-market environment. Instead of being a coaching candidate in which the bright lights and scrutiny of the UCLA program could be considered a "downside" to the coaching position, it's well-known in coaching circles that Smart is looking for that type of big stage.

Smart hasn't won two titles, like Donovan, or been to two consecutive championship games, like Stevens, but he has had substantial success in his short time in Richmond. More importantly, though, if you project, he has probably the highest potential of the three for great success at UCLA, for all the reasons dictated above. Donovan has won two titles in 16 years at Florida (on the backs of two tremendous post players and an entire class of first round picks who decided to return for another year), and went to another Final Four. Good numbers, certainly, and better than UCLA has had since Wooden. But I'd argue that UCLA shouldn't set the benchmark as "best since Wooden" since, honestly, there hasn't been much of anything since Wooden. The coaching hires have been generally poor, or ill-fated, and the commitment to winning at a high level has been absent. Instead, we should be looking for the best possible coach to get UCLA back to the highest echelon of college basketball the way UCLA basketball was meant to be played: with pressure defense, up tempo offense, and an emphasis on player quickness. In so many different ways, that means Shaka Smart is the guy.


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