Shaka Smart’s Virginia Commonwealth program endured a rough stretch that included three losses in four games in February. But the Rams have now won two in a row, including Saturday’s 67-56 victory over Saint Louis, a win that beefed up VCU’s NCAA tournament resume. It was also a sign of his squad’s growth in recent weeks. Smart knows his team has had some rocky times, but the Rams are also demonstrating the late-season momentum that past VCU squads have used to fuel NCAA tourney runs.
Smart recently spoke with ESPN.com about VCU’s season, Selection Sunday and his Final Four team.
Saturday’s win over Saint Louis was a big win for your program, but it was also a victory that avenged an earlier loss to the Billikens. What does that win say about your team’s progress in recent weeks?
Smart: Well, I think we made some progress on the defensive end. We take more pride in some of the details that go into being a good defensive team. But I think the biggest difference between last time we played Saint Louis and this time we played Saint Louis was one was at home and one was there.
How much different are the two, the road and home, in a league like the Atlantic 10?
Smart: Well, I think in college basketball, it’s just a huge factor. I remember reading, last year, a quote by Buzz Williams that I actually used with my team. I thought it was really good. He says after Valentine’s Day, to win on the road, the only way to do it is to overwhelm the other team, and I think he gave a few examples of how you can do it. But if you don’t overwhelm the other team, just with the advantages that the home team has with energy and crowd and, sometimes, the officials his point was, you’re not winning on the road in your league that late in the year. I think that’s what you see playing out in our league and other leagues.
Your team faced some early struggles this season. How much of that was tied to the loss of veterans (Troy Daniels and Darius Theus both graduated)?
Smart: The biggest challenge was the toughest schedule we ever had, and that’s nonconference and conference combined, especially the road games we’ve played. If you look at the 11 road games in our regular season, I believe 10 of them are top-100 games and the majority of them are top 50 (RPI). Those are going to be challenges for anybody, and it just so happened in our league that we got the tough end of the stick in terms of who we had to go see on the road. In terms of our team and our guys, I think leadership is something that has continued to evolve, something we’ve gotten better at over the course of the year. We need to continue getting better at it. We lost our emotional leader off last year’s team. We lost three guys that were the most unselfish guys on our team. That’s been an adjustment, replacing those guys and the intangibles they’ve brought.
What do you want to see from your team in the days leading up to the NCAA tournament?
Smart: Well, really, with the risk of sounding overly simplistic, it’s just getting better. Obviously the teams that play the best basketball in the month of March, those are the teams that survive and advance. Those are the teams that can make runs. When we have had success in March, it’s because we’ve really gotten better in late February and early March. ... Now we just have to continue improving. We can’t lose sight of any of the details.
What’s the greatest intangible that your Final Four team possessed in 2011, and does this team have it?
Smart: Confidence was definitely the best intangible for those guys. It was odd because a lot of people didn’t think we even belonged in the tournament. We had a losing record in the month of February, but those guys never wavered in their belief and themselves and each other and our team. It was what allowed them to take the floor against a team like Kansas that had, I think, six pros and not bat an eye for a second. So does this team have that? I don’t think on the level that we did in 2011. We have some other things better than that team. I’d say if you add up our personnel, if you added the pieces together, this is probably better. Joey Rodriguez wouldn’t want to hear that. ... Going into the challenging games that we’ll have in March, we’re going to have to have a level of confidence against whoever we’re playing to be able to say we’re better than these guys and we can take them out.