On Monday, Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart defended his program and the entire Colonial Athletic Association with comments that seemed to reference, albeit subtly, some of his school’s in-state rivals.
"The best programs in the state are in the CAA, and it's not even close," he said during the CAA’s weekly media teleconference Monday.
Smart also said that other schools “beat their chests” about being the best in the state but don’t have the pedigree that the CAA has acquired in recent years.
George Mason’s Paul Hewitt backed Smart’s stance during the media teleconference.
It seemed as if Smart had just dissed Virginia Tech and No. 18 Virginia (VCU is located in Richmond), two schools with two combined NCAA tournament appearances during the last decade.
And if that were the reality, he’d have a strong case. The CAA has sent two teams to the Final Four, three to Sweet 16 and 11 to the NCAA tourney over the last decade.
Smart, however, said he didn’t intend to create such a stir or knock Virginia’s bigger programs. He said he called Virginia coach Tony Bennett Tuesday to clarify his comments.
“Nobody’s taking shots,” said Smart, whose team is tied for second place in the CAA with a 9-2 record. “I talked to Tony about it today and we laughed.”
Smart’s full comments on the media teleconference included his take that college basketball teams aren’t judged by state, although he acknowledged that the topic becomes pertinent in recruiting.
“I tried to explain that nobody compares college basketball teams by state,” he said. “[But] if you look at the numbers and the state in recent years … this is where it is.”
Smart said he’d heard that his comments had prompted a buzz, but he said his only intent was to boost his program and conference. And he’s not alone.
It’s tough for any midmajor coach to keep his program relevant between January and late March, the period that interrupts the David v. Goliath nonconference matchups and the winner-takes-all postseason tournaments.
Consider Smart’s situation. He’s one year removed from a remarkable run to the Final Four. But he said he’s still fighting for the same respect that some of the region’s larger programs maintain.
“I think every midmajor coach has that complex at times that our league doesn’t get the respect it deserves,” he said.
Perhaps Smart’s comments were taken out of context. Perhaps they were misconstrued.
But Smart and the rest of the CAA’s coaches continue to fight for their league whenever they get the opportunity. And they won’t apologize for that.
“As coaches, you’re pulling for one another,” Smart said. “I was just pointing out the facts.”