RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart blew into his postgame press conference like the cool November breeze. He was, as always, polite, but curt. He was also direct. When asked if any of his players had turned in an “exceptional” performance Friday night, he barely entertained the thought.
“No,” he said, flatly.
He didn’t look like a guy who just watched his team open its season by thrashing Illinois State 96-58. He wasn’t so much upset as he was unsatisfied. He wasn’t angry, just pragmatic. Not that Smart would ever accept the first game of the season as anything but the maiden voyage of a five-month odyssey, but things have clearly changed. The Rams are the 14th-ranked team in the country. Smart’s personal Overton Window has shifted in step with the momentum of the program. His tone acknowledged that there was no value in a victory lap in November, especially not for a team with this kind of potential.
“It was our first game and the guys did a lot of good things, but we obviously have a lot to get better at,” Smart said.
It wasn’t obvious to everybody. A few minutes earlier, beleaguered Illinois State Coach Dan Muller capped his press conference by telling the assembled media: “Thanks guys. Sorry the game was so bad.”
To put that in perspective, after watching his squad get throttled for 40 minutes by the 14th-ranked team in the country, Muller felt compelled to apologize for the beating that he’d just received.
For the fans, the experience was considerably better. A crowd of 7,741 – VCU’s 36th consecutive sellout – basked in the glow of the return of the Rams. There were plenty of opportunities to cheer.
VCU rumbled out of the gate. It was 20-4 by the time the stragglers in the crowd paid the parking attendant. Minutes later, following a dizzying sequence that included three consecutive Melvin Johnson 3-pointers, the Rams’ lead ballooned to 35-8.
Illinois State, rushed by VCU’s pressure on every decision, missed 23 of its first 28 field goals. Just before halftime, the lead was at 52-18. Until a JeQuan Lewis foul with four seconds left and a subsequent turnover on the inbounds pass by Jarred Guest, it would’ve looked difficult for VCU to appear more in control. Juvonte Reddic did as he wished, VCU dominated the glass, Briante Weber ran the offense like a veteran and the Rams hit 7-of-11 threes.
The second half was not a basketball beauty contest, but it was enough for the Rams to never feel threatened and for Smart to put 14 different players on the floor. In the end, VCU had forced 22 turnovers, which became 24 points, outrebounded the Redbirds by 11, owned a 46-30 scoring margin in the paint, and shot 55 percent from the field, while limiting ISU to 32 percent shooting.
That the second 20 minutes bore little resemblance to the first stood out to Smart, and he embraced it as a teachable moment. He’s pushing for 40 minutes where the Rams play like a hurricane, not a 20-minute tornado, followed by light dusting.
Smart took the approach of a man acutely aware that in four days, he’ll take his roster, which features eight freshmen, to Charlottesville to face Virginia, the 24th-ranked team in the country. The stakes will be considerably higher, and the crowd, some 15,000 inside the sold out John Paul Jones Arena, will be considerably less…VCU-centric.
So he focused on what many will overlook in the gaudy final score. Where a casual fan may see the Rams’ 26 assists, Smart notices VCU’s 16 turnovers. Where someone may trumpet VCU’s first-half defense, Smart zeroes in on the second, in which the Redbirds managed a passable 41 percent from the field. While Smart can relate to how human nature might lead a team with a 30-point advantage to ease off the accelerator, he’s not going to surrender to it.
“It’s understandable. It’s not acceptable,” he said.
It sounded as if Smart’s players had bought into his message. When asked to assess the final 20 minutes of play, Weber, who finished with nine points, eight assists and five steals delivered – albeit with his trademark electric smile – a critical review.
“The whole second half was wrong,” he said. “We kind of let up. We let up a little bit.”
Senior Terrance Shannon agreed.
“They say you kill an ant with a sledgehammer,” he said. “We don’t want to pay attention to the score. We want to maximize everything we have.”
It’s an attitude that reflects, first, the perfectionist within Smart, but also the Rams’ inherent talent. How it’s acknowledged by all parties – the fans, the team, the media – is one thing, but they all acknowledge it to some degree. In their own way, they all accept that there’s an opportunity for this team to become special, one that won’t happen on cruise control.
“These [things] are all me being critical, but there were a lot of good things too,” Smart said. “A lot of good, a lot to work on, a lot to work with.”