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Shaka Smart, Brad Stevens, and the promise of Butler and VCU basketball in a wide-open year

In the hallway outside the Siegel Center media room, Shaka Smart was getting introspective. His VCU Rams had just massacred the Butler Bulldogs 84-52, at home in Richmond, Virginia, and I wanted to know about his relentless positivity. His quotes were starting to get good, so I looked down at my digital recorder to make sure it was rolling — a neurotic habit I can’t seem to shake — and that’s when the scene took a strange twist.

“I told myself going into the last month,” Smart began, and then … “What’s up, Boo-boo.”

I was just starting to process the implications — he calls himself “Boo-boo”? — when I glanced up and noticed that Smart was looking past me at his 1-year-old daughter. She had crept through the maze of cameras into our little group of reporters, and now she flashed a mischievous smile and scurried back to her mother. Smart picked up the sentence right where he’d left off, discussing his commitment to process-based coaching. But he seemed to be feeling a bit mischievous himself. Later, VCU PR man Scott Day filled in as a cameraman for Dana O’Neil’s spot, and Smart told him he had a future behind the camera.

“Not in front?” asked Day.

“You’ve got a face made for radio,” said Smart, and the laughs rained down on Day.1

Smart wasn’t finished. He moved on to a local CBS interview, and asked the innocent cameraman what kind of product he used in his hair. (None, it turned out.) “You’ve got what we call the good hair,” he said.

If Smart was in bantering mode Saturday, you could forgive him. His patented Havoc defense had reduced the visiting Bulldogs to a condition that fell somewhere between panic and terror.2

And the Butler Bulldogs, of course, are not just any team. Smart was quick to point out that the win had all sorts of immediate implications, since no. 20 Butler3 was an A-10 contender. Which was fair enough. But a more important element, to the world at large, was Butler’s young coach, Brad Stevens. On Saturday, Stevens and Smart shared the same court for the first time since April 2, 2011, the day Butler beat VCU in one of the most improbable Final Four matchups ever.

That 2011 game was a microcosm of what makes Stevens and Smart matter more than their contemporaries. College basketball is a sport of tournaments, and with two very different styles, they seem to have cracked the code for postseason success. The fact that they’ve done it at mid-majors just makes the whole thing even more astounding. And maybe prophetic. In 2013, when the landscape is void of unbeatable powerhouses, there’s room for a mid-major to make another deep run. Stevens’s and Smart’s teams are among the likely candidates, and everyone knew Saturday would be an important test.

And maybe the only one of its kind. Both teams moved from smaller conferences to the Atlantic 10 for the 2012-13 season, and the game in Richmond was supposed to be the start of a long rivalry. But then a splinter group of seven Catholic schools left the Big East, and now rumors are swirling that Butler and Xavier will bolt the A-10 and join them. Nobody has given a formal notice of withdrawal, but nobody’s quite comfortable, either. The upshot is that the VCU-Butler rivalry could be one-and-done. If the teams don’t meet in the conference tournament in Brooklyn, it may be a long time before the coaches square off again.

So if Saturday’s game was some kind of premature finale, Smart exacted his revenge by dealing Stevens the most lopsided loss of his career. It was a good time to smile.

Butler head coach Brad Stevens

When you look at their respective résumés, you can’t help notice how closely the career trajectories of Stevens and Smart match; it’s a little like reading about the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. Let’s start with the basics:

• Both are young by coaching standards. Stevens is 36 and Smart is 35.

• Both were stars in high school. Stevens played at Zionsville High in Indiana and graduated with school records for points and assists in a career.4 Smart played at Oregon High in Wisconsin and left with the career, single-season, and single-game records for assists.

• Both are very bright. Smart had a near-perfect score on his SAT in high school and was accepted at Harvard, Yale, and Brown. He received a master’s degree in social science from California University of Pennsylvania.5 Stevens graduated seventh in his high school class and was an Academic All-America nominee three times in college.

• Both played Division III basketball. Smart finished as the all-time assist leader at Kenyon College and was an all-conference selection as a senior, and Stevens was a starter and a senior captain at DePauw University.

• Both got their big breaks from basketball camps. Oliver Purnell, the head coach at Dayton, needed a director of basketball operations in 2001, and interviewed candidates by watching them in action at a camp. Smart stood out, and was hired. Stevens worked with Thad Matta at a Butler summer camp during college, and when he decided to leave his job at a pharmaceutical company6 to pursue coaching in 2000, he asked Matta for advice. He had also stood out, so Matta offered him a volunteer position. Stevens lived in a friend’s basement and was famously about to begin working at Applebee’s when Matta upped the offer to an assistant position that came with a $17,000 salary.

• Both had immediate success as head coaches — Stevens with Butler in 2007-08, and Smart with VCU in 2009-10. Whoever wrote the VCU media guide is very proud of the fact that Smart is second all-time among NCAA Division I coaches, with 84 wins in his first three seasons. It’s mentioned at least four times, in different guises, and rightly so. On page 35, there’s a chart showing Smart towering above legends like Mark Few and Matta and Roy Williams. The only person above him, with 89 wins, is Brad Stevens.

• Both are mind-blowingly successful tournament coaches. Stevens, of course, has made those two NCAA final games in his first five seasons, and he also came close to a Sweet 16 berth in his first year (an overtime loss to 2-seed Tennessee stopped him) and made it to the College Basketball Invitational semifinals last year. Smart won the CBI in his first season as head coach, made the Final Four in his second, and nearly upset Indiana to make the Sweet 16 last year.

• Both have eschewed jobs with bigger schools in favor of remaining at their mid-majors, and when I spoke to them, both credited the quality of people around them rather than a sense of loyalty to the school or what I’ll call Billy Beane syndrome — a desire to beat the big guys from below rather than join them. But both understand that the coaching world is different now, and it’s not always smart to leap at the first available BCS gig. A compelling moment this year came when Smart and the Rams played Alabama at home. The Tide were coached by Anthony Grant, VCU’s former coach and the man who led them to an NCAA tournament upset of Duke in 2007. But Grant has been stuck at Alabama ever since, and Smart’s team ran him off the floor in a 19-point win.

• Both are committed to positivity on the sideline, and you’ll rarely see them yell at a player or a referee. They also discuss “process-based coaching” in strikingly similar fashions.

Stevens: If you’re going to talk about being more about the process than necessarily the prize, then that’s the way you react to that. It doesn’t mean you can’t show emotion, it doesn’t mean that I won’t show emotion in the future, but those are the things that are going through my mind at that time. Basically, a shot goes in or it doesn’t go in, it doesn’t change how we played. All it means is that it didn’t go in.

Smart: It’s the only way to be. I think it’s easy as a coach, if you let yourself, to dwell in negativity and frustration because basketball is a game of mistakes and there’s going to be mistakes that occur. But I told myself going into the last month or so that I wanted to do process-based coaching. So that’s what I’ve been trying to follow, and not be so worried about the results.

I asked both if this was a natural state for them, taking the long view.

Stevens: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m great at it now. I fight every day like anybody else. I want to win, and losing just eats me alive, but I’ve gotten better over time at understanding what’s important in this.

Smart: It’s something I’ve had to work on. I’m not all the way there yet. I need to keep getting better.

• Neither would admit that coaching against the other on Saturday was in any way special or resonant beyond the importance of winning a regular-season conference game. Smart came the closest when he admitted that because of the Final Four game, it mattered a little bit more to some of the fans. But certainly not to himself or his players.

There are differences, too. Where Smart is fiery and funny, Stevens has mastered a studied blandness that matches his sideline serenity. He’s good-looking in a polished sort of way, and he still resembles the corporate hotshot he was on his way to becoming before the career change. Even when he was a senior in college, you couldn’t faze him. Today, it’s always fun to watch Stevens’s reaction when Butler wins on a buzzer-beater — which seems to happen a lot — because even in such an extreme circumstance, he stifles any outer expression of joy. See, for example, his march to half court when Butler beat Marquette earlier this year, or the way he crossed his arms and dipped his head when Roosevelt Jones hit the game-winning shot against Gonzaga.

“There are certain moments that are really out of your control and those moments were two of them,” he told me. “I’m excited for our players and excited that they got a chance to win, but I was not disappointed with how we guarded La Salle on the last possession, and they made a tough shot.”

He’s not quite a Zen master, but he’s definitely trying. My favorite quote from our interview came when I asked if he ever actually yelled at his players. He said yes, I think, but he wrapped the reply in such a heavy gauze of coach-speak that it took time to unravel:

“I try to be positive as much as possible,” he said, “but I do think, like anything else, if we need a pick-me-up or if I feel we need some extra honing in on being engaged, then I’ll certainly raise my voice and implore our players to be as good as they can be.”

It’s a sentence to make a legal writer jealous. But the approach has worked superbly, and it’s trickled down to his players. You rarely see a Butler team make stupid mistakes, especially under pressure, and in five years Stevens has racked up an incredible 44-24 record in games that went to overtime or were decided by five points or fewer.

“‘Win the game one possession at a time’ is the best way to describe what we’re trying to do,” he said, by way of describing the Butler style. “And I think that whether that calls for a different defense or a different look or whatever the case may be, we’re going to try to do that. But the key is to maintain an evenness about us to try to play one possession at a time, regardless of what happened on the last possession.”

On the court, his teams are typically very strong and physical, and they tend to play slow. (Butler’s adjusted tempo is always well into the bottom half of the national rankings.) They don’t force turnovers or block many shots, mostly because their focus isn’t on taking the kinds of risks that yield turnovers. Instead, they make the other team work for every single basket and deny the easy field goals. Brad Stevens–coached teams always rebound very well, and in the team’s biggest win of the season, against Indiana in December, they used strength on the boards and a brutal interior defense to push Cody Zeller off the blocks and limit his production.

They won that game by two points in overtime, and it should come as no surprise that in the 10 NCAA tournament wins in 2010 and 2011, exactly one of them came by double digits. The most famous loss in program history was close, too; if Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot had fallen against Duke, Butler would have won a national title.

When that shot missed, Stevens sunk to his knees. But only for a second. Then he was up and walking, his face stoic as his brain did flips, to shake hands with Mike Krzyzewski.

Virginia Commonwealth head coach Shaka Smar

Nobody would accuse Shaka Smart of lacking passion. He was named after a Zulu chieftain, and even on that most basic of topics, he can’t help but be interesting:

“It’s about the best thing my dad ever did for me,” he said in 2011, “because I was raised primarily by my mom.”

In person, Smart looks even skinnier than you’d imagine. But there’s no danger of confusing his physical slightness for a lack of vitality; he bounces when he walks, mouth slightly open, head darting from one side to another, hyper-aware and ready. It’s easy to see what he must have been like on the court and how he racked up all those assists. Watching him stride past me to the VCU bench at the start of Saturday’s game, I got the feeling that if a fly happened to cross his path, he could catch it in his fist with a quick grab. And because he’s so positive, he’d probably let it go.

When he came to Richmond in 2009, he brought the style known as Havoc, and introduced it by promising the most exciting basketball in the conference. “We are going to wreak havoc on our opponents’ psyche and their plan of attack,” he said, and he was immediately true to his word. With a full-court press that would become a trademark, VCU finished 12th in the nation in steals and 131st in forcing turnovers in Smart’s first season. Those numbers became 16th and 62nd in Year 2, and when Smart’s first recruits came of age in Years 3 and 4, they shattered the ceiling. For the past two years, VCU has led the country in both categories. This season, Havoc has reached historic proportions; no team since 2004 has forced turnovers at such a high rate, and no team since at least 2000 has a higher steal percentage. This is the best pressure defense in at least a decade.

The Havoc press isn’t overly complex. It’s a man-to-man style, but with constant adjustments and double-teams. At the start, the man guarding the inbounder often turns his back to help prevent the opposing point guard from receiving the ball. On Saturday, Butler responded by sending Andrew Smith or one of their other big men to help, and VCU was happy to let him catch the inbound pass. The Rams would stay on Smith to make sure he didn’t do something crazy like try to dribble upcourt, but the main focus was still on denying the ball to the guards. When a guard finally got his hands on the ball, the double-team was immediate, and usually involved a fast, lengthy defender like Juvonte Reddic or Treveon Graham slipping off big men. From there, the remaining defenders would creep up to the man ahead of them, ready to poach a desperate pass, knowing that a full-court heave to someone under the basket was nearly impossible for the pressured guard. The whole thing resulted in picked pockets, 10-second calls, intercepted passes, and balls thrown over heads or dribbled out of bounds.

It’s very fun to watch, but misery to play against; opponents have trouble hiding their fear. Beyond the effectiveness, though, there’s an important philosophical brilliance about Havoc, and it promises an answer for teams that want to play fast in this stultifying era of low scoring and delay tactics. In fact, it solves their only problem. Namely, how do you impose a faster pace on a team that wants to play slow?

It’s very easy for deliberate teams to bring everyone to their level; it’s a matter of holding the ball, riding out the shot clock, and making sure you send at least three players back after every shot to prevent transition baskets. Getting the plodders to speed up is much harder, but Smart has solved the riddle. Turns out, it’s easy: You do it with a press. That way, you either force turnovers and score easy baskets, or the team breaks the press and finds itself with a numerical advantage. If they hold the ball and let the defense set back up in order to run out the shot clock, they’ve chosen to allow the press to operate without fear of repercussions. But if they advance the ball and try to score, they’ve conceded the moral high ground and lost the battle for pace.

The problem with most presses is that when broken, they become vulnerable to easy layups. Havoc, though, is strangely immune. Part of that depends on design, but mostly it depends on recovery speed, and therefore on recruiting. Luckily, Smart excels in that department as well, and each year his team has increasingly borne his stamp. After Saturday’s game, Brad Stevens was asked to compare the VCU team he’d just faced to the 2011 Final Four version.

“They press much more now than they did then,” he said. “They’re faster. Much faster. Much faster. I was telling my wife, what I was going to say when I walked in here was, have [VCU guards] Weber and Theus stand in front of you as you type your article and just swipe at your computer. See if the article gets done.”

Unlike Butler’s more stolid style, Havoc produces more blowouts. After the national media railed on the selection committee for including VCU in 2011, Smart’s team won its First Four game over USC by 13, and then trounced Georgetown by 18 in the round of 64. Next it was an 18-point thrashing of Purdue, and after an overtime win against Florida State in the Sweet 16, even mighty Kansas fell by double digits. The CBI championship a year earlier was similar; no margin of victory was closer than six.

Virginia Commonwealth fans

The Siegel Center at VCU is an intimidating setting that complements Havoc. The capacity is only 7,600, but it’s a cauldron of noise. The stands are a dark sea of yellow-and-black, and there’s a pep band with a crazy director that keeps the energy high. They even have their own version of “The Imperial March,” in which the entire student body goes into an operatic frenzy after the band plays Juvenile’s “400 Degreez” and finishes by shouting in unison: “It’s Havoc you fear!”

In combination with the tight confines, the chant has a sort of psychotic, ominous vibe, and it’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen at a college basketball game. Butler is only the second ranked team to ever visit VCU’s home court in Shaka’s tenure. (The first was Oklahoma, when former VCU coach Jeff Capel was forced to bring his team under the terms of his contract.) Havoc is not a fun experience for its victims. It’s no coincidence that Smart has lost seven games in Siegel in four years, and just three over the past two seasons.

From the very beginning of Saturday’s game, VCU’s guards were too fast for Butler. Darius Theus, Smart’s first recruit at VCU and the designated “Shaka on the floor,” finished with five steals to lead the team. Five others had two apiece, and the team finished with 17. The points-off-turnover totals were a story on their own: 34-2, in favor of VCU. Roosevelt Jones was the only Butler player performing at his usual level, and it wasn’t nearly enough; by halftime, VCU was up 45-21.

Beating VCU depends on getting offensive stops, because a made basket allows the Rams to set their press. When they’re hitting 3s and getting second-chance points — part of what makes this year’s team so terrifying is that they’re 23rd in the country in offensive rebound percentage — Stevens himself conceded that there’s no way to beat them. The perimeter ball movement on offense was particularly impressive, leading to open 3s for Treveon Graham and Troy Daniels, who finished with 20 points.

And each time they set up the press, Smart would crouch in something like a defensive posture on the sideline, eyes wide, a live wire transmitting his energy to the five on the court.

After the game, Stevens was exactly as you’d expect him to be — polite, serene, and free of petty anger. He called it “an old-fashioned butt whupping,” patiently answered every question, and then was gone.

This might not be the best team he’s ever had, but they’re good enough for the NCAA tournament. If they can beat Indiana, they can make it deep, and everyone in Richmond knew that the blowout loss wasn’t representative of Butler’s potential. VCU was the star Saturday, but Stevens is always maximizing his team’s efficiency, possession by possession, and the NCAA tournament, with its pressure conditions, is when they excel.

When I caught up with Smart after Saturday’s game, I asked him why he’d stayed at VCU. It resulted in a small miscommunication.

“It used to seem inevitable if you had success as a coach at a mid-major that you would then go to a low BCS if the offer came,” I began, and Smart interrupted.

“A low BCS?” he asked, eyeing me.

I realized my mistake later, when listening to the recording. I had been speaking in a general way about other coaches, but he thought I was talking about him. That after what he’d done at VCU, all he deserved was a position at a place like TCU or Mississippi State.

“Or a high BCS, if that offer came, obviously,” I said, wondering exactly what he was clarifying.

“OK,” he said, but his tone and his eyes conveyed skepticism. It was a little uncomfortable, but now I’m grateful for the moment, because I got to see Smart’s chip-on-the-shoulder side. It’s why his team is able to swarm its opponents, from the mid-majors to the blue bloods, with total confidence. They know they’re fighting above their weight at times, but they know they’re equipped to win anyway. This is why the Rams will induce panic in the top seeds when their name is announced on Selection Sunday; they can’t be intimidated.

It reminded me of something Smart told me earlier about his own willpower. A few days before facing Butler on Saturday, he prepared by watching video of the Final Four loss from 2011. It was the first time he’d seen the tape, and he was worried that the experience would be painful. I asked him how it went.

“Well, I just told myself before I watched it that I wasn’t going to get upset,” he said. “It’s amazing when you set your mind on something how well you can do it.”

Simple as that. Wherever he ends up later this month, he’ll belong.

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere