RICHMOND, Va. – If you’re not a VCU fan, or if you watched Shaka Smart careen around the Reliant Stadium court at the Final Four in 2011 during the “Iron Man” drill, maybe you were skeptical. Seriously, what college basketball coach comports himself in a way that requires a helmet and possibly elbow pads?
Sure, Smart was young (he’s still 36), and he espouses the value of enthusiasm, but what coach is so invested in a system that he actually becomes a part of it? If you ever wondered If Smart’s demonstration at VCU’s Final Four open practice was a sincere expression of his belief in his system, you should have your answer by now.
Thursday’s 71-57 win over George Mason was just the most recent example of Smart’s investment in Havoc, and his role as the emotional mechanism that ignites the engine.
When you cover a beat for long enough, you come to understand the lexicon, the language and ideas that show up on a daily basis. For Smart, much of what he says and does is somehow related to expressions of energy, enthusiasm and appreciation. Smart often talks about players as “energy givers” or “energy takers”. He views energy as contagious, like a benign form of the mob mentality. It starts at the top, and it’s possible that nobody is more of an energy giver than Smart.
On Thursday, Smart pin-balled between the bench and the court. During one timeout, the thin, (probably) 5-foot-10 Smart chest-bumped 6-foot-8, 240-pound Terrance Shannon. It was like watching a Pinto play chicken with a city bus. Smart bear-hugged senior Rob Brandenberg and lifted him into the air at the beginning of a timeout after a VCU steal and breakaway bucket.
At different junctures, you could find Smart stretched out over one knee, peering towards the action on the far end of the court, slapping the floor, or playing the part of waterbug, if the area around VCU bench was his pond.
It’s from this reservoir of enthusiasm that Havoc flows. Inspired by their coach, the Rams fly around the court as if crashing headlong into the scorer’s table were a badge of courage.
The evidence of Smart’s culture was right there in front of us Thursday, as the Rams overcame a poor shooting night (34 percent) to put away the Patriots. The Rams forced 19 turnovers (while only committing 11 of their own) and grabbed 18 offensive rebounds on the way to victory.
Smart may have borrowed technical elements of his full court press from Oliver Purnell or Billy Donovan, but the fuel, the plutonium in VCU’s radioactive defense is inherently, emotionally Smart. It’s never more obvious than in games like Thursday.
Briante Weber is, in some ways, the petri dish of Havoc. All it takes is one seed, one cell, one molecule of enthusiasm to spur wild growth. Inspired by Smart’s breakneck approach, Weber feels empowered to push his drag racer skills and bumper car tendencies to the edge. On Thursday, Weber, who is midway through his junior year, moved into second place on VCU’s all-time steals list. He’s harassed ball-handlers into all varieties of turnovers over the years, but arguably none better than what he produced late the second half. With 47 seconds left and the Rams up by double-digits, George Mason attempted the roll the ball into play as a way of advancing the ball without starting the clock. It’s something that is rarely challenged in college basketball. But Megawatt Weber was undeterred. In the Patriots’ backcourt, Weber dove and slid head first on the floor to steal the ball, as the raucous Siegel Center crown rocketed to its feet.
“To me, the game is never over until the final buzzer goes off,” Weber said. “So, Coach told me not to let them roll the ball in, and I saw that his head wasn’t turned, so I saw an opportunity to play, so I just went for it.”
“That was something else,” Smart said. “There’s not a lot of guys that would do that at that point in the game. It kind of gives you an idea of who he is. And we appreciate having that, especially that, he has kind of an attitude of, it doesn’t matter when or where or who. He just goes after it.”
Senior Terrance Shannon is learning the VCU culture at a fast pace. But he makes it clear that he enjoys Smart’s frenetic pace and Weber’s relentless style.
“I mean, when he’s on the court, he’s reckless,” Shannon said as a way of complimenting Weber. “Everybody loves it. We feed off it. Every little thing he does, it excites the crowd and gets everybody going, so I love it.”
Much of the same can be said for senior Shannon, who has impressed recently. He provided seven points, four rebounds, three assists and two blocks Thursday. The recipient of Smart’s chest bump, Shannon also threw down a thunderous putback slam dunk that sent the Siegel Center crowd into a frenzy. In his last two games, Shannon seems to have finally found his comfort level. In his first five games after he returned from tending to a family matter, the Florida State transfer averaged 2.6 points. In his last two contests, Shannon is averaging 6.5 points. It wasn’t the technical aspects of the game that initially held him back, it was adjusting to Smart’s frenetic style.
“Honestly, I’m just bringing more energy,” He said. “That’s what I’m really trying to do. Even if I’m messing up, my energy will put me in the right places.”
While Shannon may still be adjusting to VCU’s style and Smart’s system, he knows that there’s always an avenue to available playing time that starts with enthusiasm.
“Coach is always into it,” Shannon says. “[The chest bump] was unexpected, but I liked it. Coach is an enthusiastic guy, he’s always into the game. That’s what I love about it.”