AKRON, Ohio – VCU and Akron have met four times in the last five seasons, but the schools once went 28 years between meetings. It could be a long time before they play again.
Both coaches, Shaka Smart of VCU and Keith Dambrot of Akron, confirmed the series would not be continued any time soon. It’s not bad blood that will keep these two programs at a distance, it’s quite the opposite.
Smart served as an assistant under Dambrot at Akron from 2004-06 and helped resurrect a program that had slid into irrelevance during the final days of the Dan Hipsher era in Zip-land. Smart and Dambrot remain close friends today and talk several times a week. That’s what made this game, as well as Smart’s previous contest with Dambrot and Akron at the Verizon Wireless Arena in 2010 (also a VCU win), so difficult.
Dambrot said after Thursday’s barnburner that Smart is “like my brother” and that the VCU coach was his “biggest basketball confidante”. Dambrot also revealed that he cried when he learned that VCU had upset Kansas last year to reach the Final Four.
They talk strategy, they discuss matchups, ponder disciplinary measures and share personal stories. But in the weeks and days leading up to the game, they had to pull back and put up walls. It was uncomfortable. After years of sharing every facet of their lives, now they could not because as either man will tell you, they’re fiercely competitive, and losing is the worst feeling of all.
“Once the game started, I wanted to kick his behind, Maybe more than any other opponent,” Dambrot, in his eighth season at Akron, said. “That’s what’s strange about it because we’re both the same. We’re competitive guys and it was hard during the week and really all year.”
“We talked, but it was like kind of meaningless conversations,” Smart said. “Usually we talk for 10-15 minutes and we’ll get into stuff about his team, stuff about our team, stuff about basketball or our families, but we talked 3-4 times this week, but it was like, ‘You doing okay? Talk to you later.”
It’s not a game either coach would’ve scheduled. They simply didn’t have a choice. Thursday’s game was a contractual obligation from the Rams’ 2010 ESPNU BracketBusters contest. The host team is required to return a road game within two years. So, Dambrot and Smart gritted their teeth and went to work.
Emotions ran high Thursday. Smart met his wife, Maya, in Akron. There were scores of friends and family in the stands at Akron’s Rhodes Arena. The game was tight, contentious. The stands were packed. It was a classic college basketball game that players and fans will talk about for a long time, but Smart and Dambrot would rather just move forward.
“I’d rather not coach against him because he’s someone that I have such a history with and have such respect for…but I can promise you this, we won’t be scheduling Akron anymore because I’d rather on a night like tonight, both of us win, and tonight that was impossible,” Smart said.