RICHMOND, Va. – There were a number of reasons the VCU head coaching job was attractive to Shaka Smart in 2009. Many of those same factors have helped Smart lead the Rams through three of the most successful seasons in program history.
Smart didn’t have to build VCU Basketball from the ground up, and few people are more acutely aware of the role others played before his arrival than Smart himself. Alabama Coach Anthony Grant is one of those people, and Smart is quick to credit his predecessor.
“I think what Anthony did here was phenomenal,” Smart said Wednesday. “I think he really set the bar higher than it had ever been. I think Jeff Capel before Anthony set the bar very high and I think Anthony raised the bar.”
Grant coached the Rams to a 76-25 record from 2006-09. He led VCU to Colonial Athletic Association Championships and NCAA bids in 2007 and 2009. His .753 winning percentage is the highest in school history, slightly ahead of Smart’s .743 (90-31) mark. But it was his 2006-07 team’s upset of Duke that remains the seminal moment of his tenure. The win, VCU’s first NCAA Tournament victory in 22 years, thrust the Rams into the national spotlight and served as a launching pad for the program.
“The game against Duke was certainly a watershed moment in this program’s history,” Smart said.
Grant also recruited Joey Rodriguez, Ed Nixon, Brandon Rozzell, Larry Sanders, Jamie Skeen (transfer) and Bradford Burgess. Sanders eventually became the highest NBA Draft pick in school history, while Rodriguez, Nixon, Rozzell, Skeen and Burgess formed the backbone of VCU’s 2011 Final Four squad.
Smart says that after he accepted the VCU job, he contacted both Capel, who coached the Rams from 2002-06, and Grant, who helped familiarize him with his players and the landscape of the school.
Grant is 69-41 in four seasons with the Crimson Tide. Last season, he led Alabama to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. In 2010-11, the Crimson Tide captured the SEC West Division title and reached the NIT Championship Game, where they fell to Wichita State.
“I’ve got tremendous respect for him and the program he’s built,” Smart said. “I think Anthony’s one of the top coaches in the country.”
Meanwhile, if Grant raised the bar originally set by Capel, Smart has since raised the expectations once set by Grant. Smart won 27 games and the College Basketball Insider Tournament in his first season, then followed with the Rams’ stunning Final Four run in 2010-11. Last year, VCU won a school-record 29 games and reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament. It marked the first time since 1983-84 and 1984-85 seasons that VCU earned NCAA bids in consecutive years.