Originally Published: June 18, 2014

Top 50 coaches: No. 13 Shaka Smart

By ESPN.com

VCU Havoc fansAP Photo/Steve HelberShaka Smart has developed a style that suits him and VCU quite nicely. The Rams haven't gone away.

Editor's note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 13: VCU's Shaka Smart. On Thursday, we release No. 12.

VCU could have been a fun, one-time thing, a piece of trivia. In 2011, the first year of the First Four, the Rams did the unthinkable: They turned their surprising NCAA tournament at-large bid into a five-win trip to the Final Four. They beat USC in Dayton, then Georgetown and Purdue in Chicago. And that already was enough of a story -- the stylish young coach with the undersized, chaotic, irrepressibly hot team. But VCU would win a thriller against Florida State, then stood toe to toe with top-seeded Kansas. And Shaka Smart was in the Final Four in just his second season as a head coach.

It could have ended then. Betting as much wouldn't have been an unwise move. VCU had a couple of insanely hot weeks at the end of an otherwise marginal season; they could have reverted to solid but unspectacular form. Or Smart could have taken another job. Or both.

Instead, Smart has stayed -- turning down just about every high-major coaching opening in the country in the process -- and turned VCU into a consistent, sustained program in the top-25 level. VCU doesn't sneak up on anyone now, and it doesn't need the committee's generosity to get in the tournament. Smart's long-term strategy -- on and off the court -- is the obvious reason why.

It's also the reason why Smart ranks so high on our ESPN Forecast panel's top 50 coaches list. As we mentioned in Tuesday's entry on Virginia coach Tony Bennett, we're getting to the point of this list where young, fresh insurgents are becoming rarer.

Initially, it was a surprise to see Smart this high, especially given how some panelists seemed to penalize coaches for early tournament losses despite otherwise impressive seasons. (The "current performance" emphasis in our voting meant different things to different voters, no doubt.) But the more you think about Smart's career at VCU thus far, the more difficult it is to argue with his lofty placement.

Shaka Smart
AP Photo/Clement BrittShaka Smart has built a successful program by identifying and recruiting talent that fits in his system.

For example: In five seasons, Smart has been to the tournament four times. His lowest win total as a head coach is 26, which came last season, arguably VCU's best wire-to-wire campaign. The Rams finished 2013-14 ranked No. 17 in adjusted efficiency, with a 12-4 record in Atlantic-10. That's the same record they put up in their first season in the A-10, back in 2012-13; the conference upgrade the Rams made was thanks in large part to Smart in the first place.

Smart's defining hoops strategy is widely known now; he's branded himself and his teams better than just about any coach in the country not named John Calipari. Smart calls it "havoc," and the name fits. VCU's defenders swarm and swat at opposing teams relentlessly, pressuring the length of the court for all 40 minutes of the game.

The brand wouldn't work if the defense didn't: In the past three seasons, VCU has ranked No. 19, No. 45 and No. 6 in adjusted defensive efficiency. In each season, the Rams forced opponents into the highest average turnover rate in the country. VCU opponents typically cough up more than a quarter of their possessions; sometimes 30 percent or more. And the Rams get a steady flow of easy buckets as a result.

Havoc survived the great freedom-of-movement scare of 2013-14, but it is not without its flaws. Namely this: When the Rams don't turn people over, they typically aren't very good at getting stops. This was slightly less of an issue last season. It was a fundamental problem in 2013-14. The Rams' defense was ferocious against overmatched backcourts (see: Butler), but when it faced good teams with capable ball handlers, it was easily shredded (see: Michigan). (Last season, offense was more of an issue.) The challenge for Smart going forward is how to blend what makes his style unique with good, old-fashioned things like defensive rebounding.

Still, is there any doubt he'll figure it out? And even if he doesn't, that VCU will keep being a ferocious, dynamic opponent? Next season, the Rams will return much of last season's typically guard-heavy and versatile squad, while adding three top-100 players in the school's best-ever recruiting class. They're an easy preseason top-25 pick, and then some.

There are two kinds of Cinderella stories. There are the underdogs who rise and fade in a flash of glory. And there are those who, once in the spotlight, refuse to cede it. Gonzaga took the latter path a decade ago. Smart looks determined to do the same at VCU. He's off to a rousing start.

-- Eamonn Brennan

Previous: Nos. 50-25 » No. 24: McKillop » No. 23: McDermott » No. 22: Amaker »
No. 21: Brown » No. 20: Matta » No. 19: Wright » No. 18: Fisher » No. 17: Few »
No. 16: Williams » No. 15: Hoiberg » No. 14: Bennett »

Full Top 50 Coaches List

No. 50: Tie -- Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's; Scott Drew, Baylor

No. 49: Richard Pitino, Minnesota

No. 48: Stew Morrill, Utah State

No. 47: Bob Hoffman, Mercer

No. 46: John Thompson III, Georgetown

No. 45: Mike Brey, Notre Dame

No. 44: Rick Barnes, Texas

No. 43: Chris Mack, Xavier

No. 42: Josh Pastner, Memphis

No. 41: Ed Cooley, Providence

No. 40: Bruce Weber, Kansas State

No. 39: Tubby Smith, Texas Tech

No. 38: Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech

No. 37: Rick Byrd, Belmont

No. 36: Steve Alford, UCLA

No. 35: Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's

No. 34: Tad Boyle, Colorado

No. 33: Fran McCaffery, Iowa

No. 32: Tim Miles, Nebraska

No. 31: Lon Kruger, Oklahoma

No. 30: Bob Huggins, West Virginia

No. 29: Jim Crews, Saint Louis

No. 28: Jim Larranaga, Miami

No. 27: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati

No. 26: Archie Miller, Dayton

No. 25: Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh

No. 24: Bob McKillop, Davidson

No. 23: Greg McDermott, Creighton

No. 22: Tommy Amaker, Harvard

No. 21: Larry Brown, SMU

No. 20: Thad Matta, Ohio State

No. 19: Jay Wright, Villanova

No. 18: Steve Fisher, San Diego State

No. 17: Mark Few, Gonzaga

No. 16: Roy Williams, North Carolina

No. 15: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State

No. 14: Tony Bennett, Virginia

No. 13: Shaka Smart, VCU


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