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The Cinderella Code, Part 2: Fighting Like David

Shaka Smart’s unorthodox path from Kenyon College to the Final Four

Ohio State v VCU Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

“The Cinderella Code” is a six-part series by Matt Craig, who spent last season as the lead mid-major writer at The Fieldhouse, which is The Athletic’s national college basketball platform. He has shared with us his senior honors thesis from his time at Ball State University, which examines why so-called Cinderella teams can make Final Four runs. You can sign up for his newsletter, “No Content For Old Men,” here.

Catch up on Part 1 here

Here is Part 2 of “The Cinderella Code:”

Shaka Smart’s mother wanted to name him Brian, or something more ordinary. But his father insisted on naming him after Shaka Zulu, a South African war hero who innovated combat techniques in the 19th century. Smart likes having a unique name. He likes being different. In retrospect, he says that’s about the only good thing his father ever did for him.

A native of Trinidad, Smart’s father was an academic with four college degrees and zero interest in raising a family. He was gone by the time Smart was two years old, coming back into the picture for a few of his high school years before leaving for good. Smart’s mother was from upper-middle-class Chicago, and raised Smart and his three siblings by herself on a teacher’s salary. She was tough, yet fair.

Growing up as a biracial kid in the small town of Oregon, Wisconsin, Smart was simultaneously too white and too black for his peers. He didn’t fit in with either. In the eighth grade that meant playing on two different basketball teams, one all-black and the other all-white, unbeknownst to each other. He embraced it.

“It was basketball, which I loved,” he said. “But culturally it was so very different. Just the way people talk, the way they interact, the coaching.”

Though he was obsessed with the sport, he excelled more off of the court than on. He always earned impeccable academic marks. When it came time to decide on a college, he had acceptance letters from Harvard, Yale and Brown lining his inbox.

The conventional decision would be the Ivy League. Instead, Smart picked Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. There, he could fulfill his dream of playing college basketball, even if it was only at the Division III level after Division I programs passed over the slender 5-foot-10 point guard. He was a four-year starter, a three-year captain, set the program record for assists and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history.

He could’ve done anything, even considering a career in academia, but when his former college coach and father figure, Bill Brown, offered him a graduate assistant coaching job at California University of Pennsylvania, Smart was hooked. He picked up a master’s degree in social science there and more importantly, a love of coaching. Over the next decade he made stops as an assistant coach at Dayton, Akron, Clemson and Florida. All of his bosses noticed the same thing.

“He’s an intellectual genius,” said Keith Dambrot, his boss at Akron. “A really smart, out of the box thinker.”

Smart didn’t fit into any box. He’d been told he was too white, too black, too smart, too small, and most of all when he was named the head coach of Virginia Commonwealth in May of 2009, too young.

He was 32 years old.

. . .

Akron v VCU Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Pretend for a moment that you’re the athletic director at a university in a mid-major conference and you’re looking to hire a young basketball coach. Would you have hired Smart? As you make that decision, history tells you to look for some very specific traits.

Hall of Fame college basketball coaches all follow a pretty clear career path. It starts with playing high-level college basketball, where you have the chance to gain credibility and build relationships with other influential people in the industry.

The next step is to become an apprentice under a great coach and spend years soaking up their wisdom and coaching technique. Roy Williams for example, before winning three national titles as the coach at North Carolina, played for the Tar Heels for one season and then coached for a decade under all-time great Dean Smith. The knowledge was passed through coaching generations. Smith was coached by Phog Allen, known as “The Father of Basketball Coaching.” Allen was coached by James Naismith, the man who invented the sport of basketball. It’s a system that’s proven to work.

Bill Self is another perfect example. Before amassing the 14 conference titles, three Final Fours and the one national championship he currently holds as the head coach of powerhouse Kansas, Self played basketball at Oklahoma State. He had experience participating in the NCAA Tournament as a player in 1983.

Upon graduating, he got his first coaching job at Kansas under Larry Brown, a Hall of Famer and the only head coach ever to win an NCAA Championship and an NBA Championship (Brown unsurprisingly played his college ball at North Carolina for Dean Smith). That year, the Jayhawks went 35-4 and advanced to the Final Four. Then Self spent seven years on staff at Oklahoma State, the majority of which was for Eddie Sutton, another legendary coach who totaled over 800 career wins.

By the time mid-major program Oral Roberts gave Self his first head coaching position at the age of 30, he had already played or coached in five NCAA Tournaments, and in those tournaments had advanced to two Sweet 16s and one Final Four. For comparison, Shaka Smart had been to a single NCAA Tournament at the same point in his career. And his 2008 Clemson Tigers hadn’t made it past the first round. As an athletic director, would you rather hire someone with the résumé of Self or Smart?

VCU decided on Smart. And they never reach the 2011 Final Four if it hadn’t.

He didn’t fit the mold, and had no interest in doing so.

“I just never really fit in, so I was always trying to create an identity for myself where I didn’t have to worry about whether I fit with people around me or the way I was being perceived,” Smart said.

Based on the upbringing and background he had, he was never going to coach conventionally.

In college basketball, there’s a certain way teams are supposed to play defense. It’s man-to-man, half court, with each defender keeping their individual opponent in front and not reaching in for a steal where they might foul.

Smart wasn’t interested in that.

Immediately, he implemented two separate full-court press defenses, used every possession for all 40 minutes of every game. His players would run, jump, trap, gamble, and try to force turnovers. And unlike other teams that might use full court defenses in stretches, Smart’s defense didn’t let up when a team advanced the ball past mid court, shifting into a half court trapping defense to continue the pressure.

On offense, Smart directed his players to attack quickly. All players had the green light to fire up shots within the first few seconds of a possession, before defenses could get set up and shooters could second-guess their ability. Their motto was A-C-L: aggressive, confident, and loose. It ran counter to the prevailing wisdom of the time, which stated that methodical offensive actions should lead to an earned shot. VCU’s goal was disruption.

“We’re going to wreak havoc on our opponents’ psyche, and their plan of attack,” Smart said as he laid out the plan at his introductory press conference.

Virginia Commonwealth v Kansas Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“Havoc” caught on as a buzzword for the hellish experience VCU put opponents through on both ends of the court. In his first season the Rams finished 27-9, including five straight victories to clinch the College Basketball Invitational Tournament Championship at the end of the season. In the finals against a Saint Louis team led by Rick Majerus, renowned for his disciplined brand of basketball, the Rams recorded 12 steals.

Smart and VCU were fighting like David. It’s a strategy that requires boldness by the coach, a willingness to take risk and go against the grain. Crucially, it requires a coach who’s an outsider.

Smart didn’t play Division I basketball. His coaching mentors were Keith Dambrot and Oliver Purnell, with one season under Billy Donovan thrown in. He hadn’t been indoctrinated in the way things ought to be. The career path of Williams, Self, or many other great coaches is excellent at training up Goliaths. But wanna-be Goliaths at mid-major schools with $10 million budgets don’t beat actual Goliaths at powerhouse programs with $50 million or more to spend. They don’t reach the Final Four.

Smart isn’t the only example. Brad Stevens was an economics major at DePauw University who barely found the floor as a senior on their Division III basketball team. Out of college, he took a job analyzing metrics to determine performance incentives at Eli Lilly, a global pharmaceutical company. His heart wasn’t in it, so he quit for an unpaid volunteer coaching position at the local school, Butler. Within 10 years he was coaching for a national championship. His background in numbers led to the pioneering of advanced analytics in the sport.

The coach that led Wichita State to the promised land in 2013, Gregg Marshall, played at Division III Randolph-Macon and did his understudies at his alma mater, Belmont Abbey, College of Charleston, and Marshall, totaling a single unsuccessful trip to the NCAA Tournament. Thinking unconventionally was second nature to him by the time he took the head job at Winthrop, and later Wichita State.

Even former George Mason coach Jim Larrañaga and Loyola coach Porter Moser, who played Division I basketball for Providence College and Creighton respectively, had to go through some hardship to be shaken from the traditional way of thinking. After serving as an assistant at Virginia, Larrañaga’s head coaching career began with an unimpressive 170-144 record at lowly Bowling Green.

The box of convention wasn’t working, so he abandoned it. During his tournament run in 2006 he was open to receiving coaching tips from even his two sons. In the second round win over North Carolina his plan was to pressure freshman point guard Bobby Frasor, but his sons told him to wait until after halftime when UNC coach Roy Williams couldn’t adjust for it in the locker room.

“I thought it was a brilliant suggestion,” he said.

The Patriots turned a seven-point halftime deficit into a five-point victory.

That same season Moser was struggling through a 9-19 season as the head coach at Illinois State. He was fired after three losing seasons in four years, and was forced to return to the assistant coaching ranks under Majerus at Saint Louis (where he was on the receiving end of Smart’s Havoc defense in the 2010 CBI finals).

He reinvented his coaching philosophy, discovering the offensive principle of “point five,” an idea that offensive players shouldn’t hold the ball for more than half a second before passing or cutting. Asking a player to avoid isolating their defender one-on-one would be ludicrous at a power conference school, but it became a key in his 2018 Loyola team making the Final Four.

If you’re the athletic director at a mid-major school looking to hire a young coach, whom do you pick now?

. . .

Virginia Commonwealth v Kansas Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There are two reasons why most college basketball teams do not run Smart’s Havoc defense, despite its effectiveness. The first is that it’s really difficult.

Studies suggest that the average basketball player runs close to three miles in a game. It’s not unreasonable to project that number to be greater than five miles per game with a team that is full-court pressing like VCU. To prepare to play in that style, the players must be in incredible shape. In line with his unconventional thinking, before each season, Smart took his team to train with Navy SEALs for five days, a “hell week” that combined team building with intense conditioning.

Back on the court, practices weren’t much easier. Every drill was competitive, and losers ran. One of Smart’s signature drills, called the “Iron Man,” involves a player taking a charge — essentially letting another player run over him — before getting up and sprinting to the sideline to dive for a loose ball, then getting up and sprinting to the other sideline to save a ball from going out of bounds. In addition to high-intensity drills, Smart forced teams to run from one drill to the next, not giving them time to relax and catch their breath.

“Nobody really wants to do that,” admitted VCU guard Ed Nixon.

Most coaches can’t push their players that hard without making them resent him.

Smart wasn’t most coaches. He was 32 years old, too young to be out of touch.

“He’s one of the guys,” said point guard Joey Rodriguez, who recalls being in the car on the way to the first team dinner after Smart’s hiring when the young coach popped in a hip-hop CD and started singing along. “I was like Coach, you listen to this?”

Smart sought out the players to talk about life outside of the game. He jumped into drills and compete shoulder-to-shoulder with his players.

He and his whole staff went through every activity with the players during “hell week” training with the SEALs. He even did the Iron Man drill a few times. While he may never have had the opportunity to study under a hall of fame coach, he had learned from Kenyon coach Bill Brown that a college basketball coach could become a father figure for young student athletes. By becoming one for his players, he could demand more from them. He could demand Havoc.

The second reason why most teams don’t implement risky pressure defense is that it can be figured out. It’s simple math. If a defense chooses to position two players up guarding the opposing player with the ball 90 feet from their own basket, and two more defenders nearby to intercept passes, it leaves just one defender back. A well-prepared opponent can make the right combination of passes to expose that final defender. If Havoc isn’t able to cause havoc, it surrenders easy baskets every time.

VCU learned this in Smart’s second season in Richmond in 2010-11. The defense wasn’t surprising anybody anymore, especially when the team reached conference play, where opposing players and coaches were most familiar. The Rams finished the season by losing four of their final five games, only forcing 10.4 turnovers per game in those contests, down from nearly 15 per game on the season. The Rams fell in the finals of the conference tournament, missing their chance at an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Virginia Commonwealth v Georgetown Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

No one thought VCU deserved an at-large bid. Smart didn’t even gather his team to watch the selection show together to avoid a letdown. In any year prior, they definitely wouldn’t make it. But 2011 was the first year the NCAA implemented the “First Four,” a four-team expansion event that serving as a qualifier for the field of 64.

Even VCU’s selection to the First Four was controversial. On ESPN’s broadcast after the bracket reveal, longtime college basketball analyst Dick Vitale likened the selection committee’s choice of VCU over Colorado and Virginia Tech to a beauty contest between Roseanne Barr and Scarlett Johansson. He said his wife could tell the difference.

Fellow ESPN analyst Jay Bilas agreed: “These were bad decisions. And we talk about the eye test, this [selection] doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

Once VCU entered tournament play, teams that had never seen the Rams play were forced to game plan for Havoc on short notice. VCU played its First Four game on Wednesday night, less than three days after the selection show. After defeating USC, No. 6 seed Georgetown had less than 48 hours to figure out how to break the press in the round of 64. They weren’t able to, turning the ball over 17 times and getting blown out 74-56. The fast-paced offense was rolling by that point, and in the next two rounds the Rams combined to hit 19 threes and score over 160 points. Thanks to some desirable disadvantages, VCU was in the Elite Eight.

The team standing between them and the Final Four was none other than No. 1 seed Kansas, led by traditionally trained Bill Self. The Jayhawks were 35-2.

“They seemed, when you looked at them initially, invincible,” said VCU assistant coach Mike Jones. “But what we were able to discover is that the things that we were good at, they were not good at. They were not good in transition. We were great in transition. They were not good at ball-screen defense. We were great at ball-screen offense. And they didn’t handle pressure well.”

What Jones was saying, essentially, was that Kansas had a big gap in their helmet, right at forehead level, just asking for a stone to be fired in there like a .45-caliber pistol. The Rams held Kansas to 35 percent shooting, a paltry 2-of-21 from three-point distance, and forced them into 14 turnovers. After weathering a second-half comeback, the final score indicated a convincing 71-61 victory.

A ticket was punched to the Final Four.

A giant was felled.

Just don’t call it a Cinderella story.