AUSTIN — When head coach Shaka Smart left Virginia Commonwealth University for Texas in April 2015, UT had the option of either scheduling a home-and-home with the Rams or buying out the contest as part of compensation for signing Smart. Rather than send a bunch of money to Richmond, Virginia, the Longhorns are instead traveling to the Siegel Center the season’s first road trip and for Smart’s first trip back to VCU.
Smart compiled 163 wins in six seasons in Richmond, including a Final Four appearance in 2011 thanks to the tough ‘Havoc’ defense that he became synonymous with. Others on staff in Richmond were assistant coach Mike Morrell and special assistant Denny Kuiper.
On Monday, Smart acknowledged the history he and other staff members have with VCU, but tried to make sure he didn’t make this return home bigger than another out-of-conference game.
“If you take out even the fact that some of us coached there, not just me but a lot of other guys on the staff, even if we hadn’t, this would be an exciting place to go play because they’ve sold out over 100 straight games,” Smart said. “There’s an unbelievable passion and excitement there for basketball. There’s been great success there for the past 15 years plus in basketball, so I’m excited for our guys to experience that.”
However, Smart did not totally downplay the importance of returning to where his career took off, saying that it will be an “interesting experience to be on the other side.”
He won’t be alone on the other side as he has a team to lead into Richmond to try and get an important win away from home. His team even joked with him about possibly receiving some boos when he goes back, but Smart knows a lot of the extras surrounding this game will end as soon as the game starts.
“I have a lot of appreciation for all the people that made that experience that we had there so special,” Smart said. “Hopefully most of them remember a lot of the good times that we had and a lot of the games that we were able to enjoy together, but really for us, when the game starts, that ball goes up in the air, the focus I think for everyone is going to be on the ten players on the court and the two teams.”
Aside from the story of Smart returning home, this is a very interesting early season test for the Longhorns, as it is Texas’ first true road game of the season. It also is a matchup against another team in the top 100 of the Pomeroy rating in that challenging road environment.
Since Smart left VCU in 2015, the Rams are 34-4 at home. Smart’s replacement, Will Wade, translated two successful seasons in Richmond to a job in Baton Rouge coaching LSU’s team. The current Ram head coach, Mike Rhodes, has gotten off to a good start at home, posting a record of 4-1 so far.
“I’ve been telling the guys if you’re a basketball player at the college level, any level, you love going into environments where you understand there’s going to be a hostile crowd, it’s going to be packed, there’s going to be a lot of energy and excitement in the building, and that’s fun,” Smart said. “If you even take the names of the schools out of it, just getting the chance to play in a sold-out arena, that’s a lot of fun.
“I think for our guys, it’s a great opportunity and it’s something we want to take advantage of.”
So the Longhorns not only have to matchup against the hostile crowd in the Siegel Center, but also against some very talented players. Smart mentioned two seniors he helped get to VCU, forward Justin Tillman and guard Jonathan Williams.
Tillman is averaging 15.5 points and 7.4 rebound per game for the Rams. Smart said it would be a challenge to guard him in the paint.
“He’s a terrific player and he’s very multi-dimensional,” Smart said. “He hit four threes in their last game, 28 points. He can really rebound. He’s quick off his feet. He scores around the basket. He’ll be a real challenge for our bigs and for our team.”
When describing Williams’ play at guard, Smart described him as the “head of their snake.”
“Do-it-all point guard,” Smart said. “He’s very, very strong and aggressive. He is the other guy, along with Justin, that I coached a few years ago. Those guys I’m sure are going to be highly motivated, but for us and our team, the important thing is doing a great job on them.”
Texas needs to maintain its defensive intensity, but they also need to improve on the offensive end. After their recent poor shooting performance against Florida A&M that was masked by great points in the paint numbers, and Smart claiming he “jumped their ass” in the home locker room, Smart said the team has responded well.
“We have to continue to grow in a lot of areas, and we’re also trying to balance the fact that we want to spend a good amount of time in practice on shooting, too, because that’s an area where we need to obviously get a lot better,” Smart said. “I think our guys have practiced hard. We’ve done a lot of running, we’ve done a lot of getting up and down.”
On defense, the Longhorns will be facing an opponent (and a fan base) very familiar with Smart’s signature “Havoc” style of basketball. If the Longhorns get into the press, Smart knows Longhorns will have to do well “fixing it,” or getting back into matchups after the press has been broken.
“That will be a big key in this game just because there will be a lot of situations where it’s in transition, or coming out of a trap, or coming out of a broken play situation in the full court where we have to fix it,” Smart said. “We’ve got to sprint back, get matched up, (and) allow no open shots.”
Overall, this is a game where Smart can learn a lot about his team’s mental makeup and physical capacity on the floor against a quality opponent. It will still mean a lot, but there’s still a game of basketball to be played.
“This is a game that, if we can go win, that will be meaningful for us,” Smart said. “We’ve tried to make it more about that. I heard some of the guys make some comments, and they are very aware that a lot of us coached there, not just me, and that we have ties and connections there. At the end of the day, I think when the ball goes up in the air, it goes back to doing what goes into winning.”