Shaka Smart returns to VCU to battle his former team

Steve Helwick

Five tournament berths, 163 wins, 74 conference victories and one Final Four appearance. That was the what Shaka Smart built for the VCU Rams in his six years with the program. And on Tuesday night, for the first time since accepting the Texas job in 2015, the Longhorns head coach will finally return to the arena where he built his basketball résumé — Richmond, Virginia.

“I’m excited about every game,” Smart said. “If you take out even the fact that some of us coached there, even if we hadn’t, this would be an exciting place to play because they’ve sold out over 100 straight games. There’s an unbelievable passion and excitement there for basketball. There’s been great success for the past 15 years and plus there.”

Smart is not the only former Ram on staff. His assistant coach Mike Morrell served under Smart at VCU and several other members of the Texas basketball faculty will also return to their former workplace on Tuesday. It was at VCU where Smart created the mantra “HAVOC” — a term for his team’s aggressive playing style and a rallying cry for the Rams’ student section.

“Now that we add the connections that we have there, it will be an interesting experience to be on the visiting side in that arena,” Smart said. “I’m most just looking forward to seeing how our guys respond to that atmosphere.”

Smart coached the VCU Rams for six seasons from 2009–2015, culminating in annual trips to the tournament and a 2011 Final Four bid as an 11-seed. His success landed the Rams in a stronger Atlantic 10 Conference, and the team has still sustained its excellence since its former coach traveled west. Entering 2017-18, VCU currently rides an eight-season streak of achieving 25 or more victories.

The Rams are currently 5–3, matching the Longhorns in the win column. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder is a former Smart recruit, Justin Tillman. The senior power forward collected 28 points in his last outing and has sunk 10-of-19 threes this season. Familiar with the team, Smart is prepared for any challenges Tillman and his crew might bring to the table.

“They’ll challenge us in a few ways,” Smart said. “They’ve done a really good job of implementing the style of play that we’ve used in the past there — some people called it ‘HAVOC’ — which is pressing, extending the floor, playing very aggressively and a really just a mindset of just toughness and aggressiveness.”
It will be an emotional game given the numerous ties the Longhorn program has with VCU. But in order for Texas to collect its sixth victory and continue fighting for a ranking, Smart’s team must come prepared as they enter the rabid atmosphere that the coach used to call home.

“I think they’ll be some of everything,” Smart said on whether he would be greeted with applause or disapproval in Richmond on Tuesday night. “That falls under the category as things you don’t control as a coach. I have a lot of appreciation for all the people that made that experience there so special. Hopefully most of them will remember a lot of the good times that we had and the games we could enjoy together.”