HOUSTON, Tex. – You know it’s going to be a good press conference when the first question directed at VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart is, “Are you out of your mind?”
Moments earlier, Smart was throwing his body all over the basketball court at Reliant Stadium, much to the delight of a crowd of thousands, assembled to watch Friday’s Final Four open practices. They roared as Smart and his coaching staff participated in something they call, “The Iron Man Drill”, which asks that the participant take a charge under the basket, get up, dive on the floor for a loose ball, then gather themselves to save a ball careening out of bounds to a teammate. When Smart completed the drill, he was mobbed by his players and coaches.
CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz, who will call the Final Four, commented during a post-practice interview – broadcast throughout the stadium – that he’d never seen a team display such exuberance during the open practice. Kentucky, which followed the Rams onto the practice court, only affirmed Nantz’s observation by spending a chunk of its practice session quitely shooting free throws.
During VCU’s Final Four run, Smart has maintained that he stresses that the Rams remain aggressive, confident and loose (ACL) and Friday’s open practice did nothing to make anyone believe otherwise.
The Iron Man Drill provided a moment of levity, but it’s not without purpose.
“We’ve been talking about how important some of the defensive things are to the game tomorrow night,” Smart said. “Our coaches figured we would step in and put our bodies where out mouth is.”
After spending 40-some minutes performing shooting drills, a few players conducted their own dunk contest. By the way, Toby Veal is the best dunker on the team and it’s not close. The competition ended with Joey Rodriguez charging towards the basket, then being hoisted up by Veal for a two-handed dunk.
As Joey Rodriguez took his seat on stage prior to today’s press conference, he spotted Jerry Palm, who projects the NCAA field for CBS and was one of the first to include the Rams in his brackets, and declared, “that’s the best bracketologist in the world right there,” as Palm sheepishly grinned.
VCU Assistant Coach Mike Jones was the first member of the Rams’ coaching staff to complete the Iron Man Drill today. As a result, he received four stitches in his arm, the result of diving for a loose ball near the sideline.
It appears that Rodriguez will be appearing on the George Lopez Show next Wednesday. America’s sweethearts, indeed.
At one point, Shaka Smart, on the eve of the biggest game of his life, looked at Sports Information Director Scott Day and commented, “you’re too stressed.” Pure gold right there.
Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas of ESPN met with VCU President Dr. Michael Rao near the Westin Hotel to sign the “Eat Crow, Baby” banner that had been circulating around town. Vitale hopes to have other celebrities sign the banner and then auction it off for charity. Afterward, I had a chance to sit down and interview Bilas. I’ll blog about that eventually, but I want to try to get with Vitale at some point on Saturday.