VCU Coach Shaka Smart calls Akron's Keith Dambrot, "my best friend in coaching."

VCU Coach Shaka Smart calls Akron’s Keith Dambrot, “my best friend in coaching.”

RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart probably expected to spend his first day of work at Akron watching film or browsing the school’s recruiting database. Instead, he helped Keith Dambrot work out LeBron James at lunch.

It was the Spring of 2003, and Smart was a precocious 26-year-old basketball junkie who had just landed his first Division I assistant coaching gig. Dambrot was also an assistant under Zips’ Coach Dan Hipsher and had previously coached James at Akron Saint Vincent-Saint Mary’s High School. James was a couple of months away from being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and was already one of the best basketball players on the planet. Although they’d never met before, Smart helped Dambrot work our James for the next couple of months.

“I didn’t really say much for the first few times because I was in awe,” Smart said of James. “But that was a great experience. But that’s the type of guy [Dambrot] is.”

Smart and Dambrot became fast friends. When Dambrot was tapped to replace Hipsher in 2004, Smart stayed on as one of his assistants. Although Smart left in 2006 for Clemson and then eventually worked at Florida before becoming VCU’s head coach in 2009, he and Dambrot remained close.



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Keith Dambrot, 210-93 at Akron, is a close friend of Shaka Smart and says he regularly watches the Rams on TV.

Keith Dambrot, 210-93 at Akron, is a close friend of Shaka Smart and says he regularly watches the Rams on TV.

AKRON, Ohio – If anybody knows what he’s in for, it’s Keith Dambrot.

VCU Coach Shaka Smart worked as an assistant under Dambrot from 2004-06, and the two remain close friends. Smart and Dambrot play styles that are similar, and as long as they’re not facing each other, they’ve been known to closely watch each other’s games and openly root for one another.

“The bad thing is, he could coach our team, and I could probably coach his team. That’s how much we know about each other,” Dambrot said Monday, ahead of 12th-seeded Akron’s Round of 64 NCAA Tournament game with the fifth-seeded Rams, which will be played Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Dambrot knows all about VCU’s full-court pressure, “Havoc”, and its prolific reputation for taking the ball away from the opposition. The Rams set a school record for steals this year and lead the country in that category. VCU (26-8) also leads the nation in turnover percentage for the second straight season.

“Look, I’ve watched them play more than any team in the country other than us,” Dambrot said. “They’re going to try to speed us up, make us try to make mistakes, and we’re going to try to throw the ball to our big guys and it’s as simple as that. It’s a simplistic game.”



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MFF_2013_FINAL_LOGOSetting the scene: Surely you’ve heard by now, but just in case, VCU has received a five seed for the NCAA Tournament and will take on 12th-seeded Akron Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich. at approximately 9:50 p.m. VCU and Akron will follow No. 4 Michigan and No. 13 South Dakota State. The winners of those two games will meet on Saturday in the round of 32.

The series: It seems like VCU and Akron can’t avoid each other, that the universe is conspiring to make them play every year. The Rams and Zips drew each other for ESPN’s BracketBusters event in 2007-08 (in Akron) and 2009-10 (in Richmond). They also played the contractually obligated return games. That means this will be the fifth meeting between the two schools since 2008, none of which were actually scheduled by the schools. Ain’t life grand?

VCU won all four of the recent meetings between the schools and leads the all-time series 6-0. The Rams topped the Zips 76-75 in overtime on Dec. 29, 2011 in the last meeting. A baseline drive and layup by Darius Theus in the final seconds provided the final margin.

Here is the final 1:10 of that contest:


The friendship: Shaka Smart was an assistant coach for Zips Coach Keith Dambrot from 2003-06. The two remain extremely close and openly root for each other when they’re not playing. It was clear after last season’s meeting that both men agonized over the prospect of meeting as opponents.

Here’s what Shaka Smart said following the Rams’ win last last season at Akron’s James A. Rhoades Arena:

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.

Dambrot even revealed that he cried when VCU upset Kansas to reach the Final Four in 2011.

VCU and the NCAA Tournament: This will be the Rams’ 12th NCAA appearance. VCU is 11-11 all-time in the tournament, including 6-2 under Shaka Smart.

This marks the fourth time VCU has reached the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team (1983, 1984, 2011, 2013).

The Rams’ five-seed is its highest since VCU earned the No. 2 seed in the West in 1985, and is tied for the second-highest ever by the school. VCU was also a five-seed in 1981 and 1983.

VCU has won at least one NCAA Tournament game in eight of its previous 11 appearances.

The Rams are 2-0 as a five-seed against a 12-seed.

Finally, here is a photo of Dambrot in a VCU t-shirt. Good times:

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VCU earns its highest seed since 1985 (when it was seeded No. 2 in the west) and will head to Auburn Hills for a Thursday game with 12th-seeded Akron.

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Shaka Smart said Sunday he's proud of VCU's performance in the A-10 this season.

Shaka Smart said Sunday he’s proud of VCU’s performance in the A-10 this season.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – As Shaka Smart spoke, his voice betrayed him. After three emotional Atlantic 10 Tournament games, it cracked and wheezed. Much like his team, Smart left everything, including his voice, on the Barclays Center floor.

The Rams stellar inaugural A-10 season came to a close Sunday in an emotional 62-56 loss to Saint Louis in the league’s championship game. VCU, which had been overrun by a poised Billikens team in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, battled until the final horn. The Rams refused to let Saint Louis walk to a title with a repeat performance.

But an A-10 title was not in the cards for the Rams this year. That honor goes to a tough Saint Louis team that overcame the death of its coach, Rick Majerus, earlier this year and banded together. The Billikens came into the game ranked 16th nationally, and they’re at least that good, if not better. The Rams can keep the chins high.

“We came at them, they took a punch from us. They responded, and that’s why they’re the champions,” said Smart afterwards.



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Shaka Smart says an NCAA bid is "nice", but the Rams are in Brooklyn to win a championship.

Shaka Smart says an NCAA bid is “nice”, but the Rams are in Brooklyn to win a championship.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – For VCU, the conference tournament has long functioned as a de facto play-in round for the NCAA Tournament as much as it was a chase for a championship. Not since 1985 have Rams fans been able to truly compartmentalize the two experiences.

Although there’s no such thing as an “automatic” at-large berth, not officially anyway, the Rams will be dancing this year. Every “bracketologist” under the sun – from Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm, to Joe Schmoe crunching brackets in his mom’s basement – has VCU safely seeded anywhere from a No. 6 to a No. 9. While the Rams’ results this weekend will greatly impact where VCU will be seeded, who it’ll play and where it will go, it won’t be a do-or-die scenario. This NCAA Tournament is one thing. That’s next week. This weekend in Brooklyn is all about chasing a title.

VCU’s move to the Atlantic 10 is actually one of the main reasons the Rams don’t have to grit their teeth through CBS’ tournament selection show this year. The A-10 has the seventh-highest RPI in the country and will likely receive anywhere from three to six bids. The Rams racked up six top-100 wins in league play. In all, VCU has built a NCAA resume on 10 top-100 wins, including three top 50 triumphs, and no “bad” losses.


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