RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart won his 150th game Saturday afternoon. But you may want to hold off on ordering a congratulatory sheet cake with his grinning mug on it. Reading between the lines, it doesn’t sound like this manufactured milestone means much to him.
“Nothing. It says I’ve coached a lot of games,” the sixth-year VCU coach said. “It seems like I just coached my first game. It goes fast, and you learn not to take anything for granted. But I’m appreciative of our guys that we have on our team. I’m appreciative of the guys that I’ve coached on former teams. They’ve won the games. I’ve not scored a basket here or gotten a rebound. Obviously we’ve got a lot of goals in front of us and that’s what we’re focused on.”
That last part is key here. One of the main reasons Smart has won 150 games – and lost just 49 – is because he has a clear idea about what his and his team’s goals are, and a self-congratulatory victory lap in early January ain’t it.
VCU thumped defending Atlantic 10 Conference champion Saint Joseph’s for most of Saturday’s contest at the Verizon Wireless Arena. The final score, 89-74, doesn’t tell you that VCU led by 27 with 12 minutes to go or that no Rams starter needed to play more than 23 minutes. Melvin Johnson shot the lights out (7-of-8) and finished with 20 points, while Treveon Graham was, well, Treveon Graham. He added 19 economic points.
Most people wouldn’t think twice if Smart wanted to pat the team on the back and chalk up an eighth straight victory; heck, maybe even take the squad out for ice cream sandwiches. The Rams (13-3, 3-0 A-10) entered Saturday’s game ranked 20th in the country and are one of three teams unbeaten in league play.
Those people don’t know Shaka Smart very well.
Saturday’s win was an uneven one. Although VCU was dominant for long stretches, including the beginning of both halves, Smart couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, hide his displeasure with the Rams’ overall defensive performance and a 17-4 Saint Joseph’s run late in the second half that necessitated subbing a number of starters back into the game.
“No, I wasn’t thrilled with that,” he said. “I think it takes a mature team to play the right way regardless of what the scoreboard says, and we have some maturing to do.”
Although the Rams turned Saint Joseph’s over 20 times, the Hawks (6-8, 0-3 A-10) shot 49 percent (25-of-51) from the field and scored more points than any VCU opponent in seven games. Maybe we’re splitting hairs here. The Rams won by double digits. But Smart knows that details matter, and to him, those aren’t minutiae.
Smart was particularly concerned with the play of his bench. Although the Rams received 30 points off the bench, both of Saint Joseph’s extended runs occurred largely with non-starters on the floor.
“I thought for the most part the starters played the right way, and I thought some guys came off the bench tonight with some ulterior motives and that’s just, it’s not the way we want to be. It’s understandable when you’re up 15-20, but it’s not acceptable, and those are two different things.”
VCU’s bench consists of four freshmen, three sophomores and a senior, and that group’s youth is not lost on Smart. With youth often comes a search for consistency.
“They’ve certainly made a lot of growth. Today was not our best day in that regard,” he said. “Sometimes the worst thing that can happen is to get off to a start the way we did. Coaches don’t think this way, but sometimes players think,
‘Well, it’s going to be easy’, and that can cause you to be a step off or be a half-second behind in your thinking, so I think that affected us a little today, but overall those guys are making strides.”
So no, there would be basking in this victory, only taking the steps Smart feels are necessary for the next one. VCU heads to streaking Rhode Island on Tuesday for a game that could look a lot like the late rounds of the A-10 Tournament, and he won’t settle for a team anything short of ready.
“I think it’s on all of us,” Smart added. “I think it’s on our coaching staff. I think it’s on our older players, and then it’s on our younger guys.
“It’s a lesson they’re going to have to learn. I don’t know if they learned it fully today. It’s definitely something we addressed and talked about and something that we will continue to address.”
That’s how you win 75 percent of your games for six seasons and make four straight NCAA Tournaments; with a steadfast dedication to self-actualization. Complacency is an enemy of victory, and Smart has never been one pull up before the finish line. There’s still time to celebrate in March.