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Is Texas Basketball Ready to Meet Shaka Smart's Demands?

Shaka Smart

Shaka Smart

It is possible to trace Shaka Smart’s devotion to the mayhem of his Havoc defense to time spent as an assistant to Oliver Purnell and Billy Donovan, both of whom — earlier in their respective careers — preferred to strangle opponents for 40 minutes over 94 feet. It makes sense that coaches take what they learn and make it their own.

But the truth is that while Purnell and Donovan no doubt helped shape Smart’s style, the true genesis of his coaching philosophy came on steamy outdoor courts near Madison, Wis., when he, his brother Alfred, and a friend would play a fullcourt one-on-one game known as “Sit Down,” known to others as “King of the Court” and “Knock Out.”

“We liked to call it ‘Sit Down,’ because if you got scored on, you sat down,” Smart says. “It builds a level of pride in your defense, because you don’t want to get scored on.”

The game was simple. If you gave up a bucket, you went to the sidelines, and the other player came onto the court. But you couldn’t stand while waiting for your next opportunity. You had to sit, which delivered a simple message: If you don’t play D, you go to the bench. It was nice to score, the better to make your opponent — or, ideally, brother — take a seat. But the game was really about defense. And that, more than any exposure to the pressing ways of his future bosses, made Smart develop his system. Combine that with a sense of considerable irritation over having played D-III basketball (at Kenyon College in Ohio) and not on the college game’s bigger stage, and you have a coach who wants to make every possession a fight.

Related: Texas Longhorns 2015-16 Team Preview

When Smart was a 27-year old assistant under Keith Dambrot at Akron, he would join the Zips’ practices on occasion and brought the “Sit Down” mentality to his interactions with the players. Not all of them enjoyed the approach, and one day, guard Dru Joyce — known best for being LeBron James’ high school teammate — was particularly unhappy with Smart’s aggressive style.

“Dru was a tough guy, and Shaka had a chip on his shoulder, because he played Division III ball,” Dambrot says. “One day, Dru elbowed him in the head. I said, ‘That’s the end of that.’ But that’s Shaka. He’s going to compete. That’s what makes him special.”

Throughout his six-year tenure as head coach at VCU, Smart showed that same contentious fury at every practice and during every game. Standing on the sideline — no way was he going to “sit down” — without a jacket and rarely letting a smile come close to lining his face, Smart presided over his Havoc producers, looking at all times as if he wanted to join them in a halfcourt trap. His teams won a shade under 75 percent of their games (163–56, 0.744), reached the 2011 Final Four and gave the school national brand recognition it had never enjoyed before.

Schools kept asking for Smart to leave the mid-major Rams and join them in the big leagues, but he refused one after another. Finally, this past spring, Texas made a big pitch, and Smart listened. He succeeds Rick Barnes in Austin and will find out whether his Havoc approach can work with better players against better opponents. While Smart may have to play a bit differently this season, thanks to the returning players on the UT roster, it’s likely that future Longhorn iterations will have the same commitment to producing fullcourt turmoil as Smart’s VCU teams did. It will be interesting to see if the style was more suited to the underdog than it will be to the favorite.

VCU never reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament after 2011, perhaps because its opponents had the guards necessary to negate the Havoc pressure. That was the case in 2013, when Michigan broke the Rams’ press with ease in a 78–53 Round of 32 rout. In the Big 12, it is unlikely teams will cower should the Longhorns bring a nasty attitude to the court. Can Smart create a version that maximizes the improved talent with which he figures to work — although the VCU players certainly weren’t discount-rack quality — while still providing the energy he prefers?

“We’re still trying to figure it out,” says Smart, who admits this year’s Texas unit may be two teams in one, because of its sizeable frontcourt. “If the hole is round, you want to put a round peg in it, not a square. There are some of the elements of the way we played at VCU that we want to bring with us to Texas.

“We will be aggressive and have enthusiasm. And the players will scrap. Then, when we get into specific situations, we’ll figure out how much we want to press and run.”

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The story and previews of every team in the Big 12 are available in the Athlon Sports 2014-15 College Basketball Preview, available on newsstands or in the Athlon online store.

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When Troy Daniels played for Smart at VCU, a three-plus-hour practice just wasn’t enough for him. At least that’s what Smart thought. After each workout, Daniels had to stay behind to complete a drill known as “Nines and Tens.” In it, Daniels had to hit nine of 10 3-pointers from five spots on the court. If he didn’t nail at least 90 percent from each location, he started again. And again.

“Sometimes during my sophomore year, I would be out there for hours after practice,” says Daniels, a guard for the Charlotte Hornets. “I didn’t understand why he was doing it, but it prepared me for the NBA.”

After connecting on just a third of his triple tries during his sophomore season, Daniels made 38.1 percent as a junior in 2011-12 and 40.3 percent the following year. During his two years in the NBA, Daniels has shot 38.5 percent from behind the arc. Without Smart’s demanding approach, it’s highly unlikely Daniels would be in Charlotte.

“When you are younger, you don’t see the bigger picture,” Daniels says. “You just see him yelling at you. That’s the way I was. But when you get to the NBA, you see it helps. It prepared me for tougher things.”

Smart’s energy can be difficult for some to appreciate. His tightly coiled on-court personality is not much different from his everyday demeanor. Smart is not one to sit back and wait for someone else to dictate terms. He wants to create solutions to problems, implement them and evaluate the results. And he isn’t too interested in allowing someone else to drive the process. It’s not that he won’t collaborate. But he is interested in generating the momentum necessary to achieve success. That can be overwhelming for some people. Among them are opponents unable to withstand 40 minutes of constant pressure.

It isn’t easy to embrace Smart’s passion, at least initially. But since his commitment is so strong, and his interest in those around him is legitimate, those who hang with him are often rewarded. For players, that means wins and personal progress. For others, it is the benefit of being around someone willing to fill his environment with a vitality that creates positive outcomes.

“I try to be a high-energy person,” Smart says. “People want to be around energy givers. But it’s not like people just adapt to this level of intensity right away. But it’s about building relationships and developing trust. When I first came here, some of the guys were in wait-and-see mode. They were asking, ‘Are (Smart and his staff) for real? Is this enthusiasm something they’re going to maintain?’ Those are legitimate questions.”

If any team is to employ Smart’s style completely, its members’ answers must eventually be affirmative — and resoundingly so. The commitment necessary to press relentlessly and harass constantly has to be complete. Without that full dedication, the traps come a step too late. The rotations are a half-second off, and disaster ensues.

To ensure that the Longhorns would be willing to embrace the process fully, Smart and his staff spent their first months in Austin connecting with the players.

“He made us believe in his vision right away,” senior guard Demarcus Holland says.

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Smart had the team to his house, and he visited their apartments, dorms and houses. He met their families.

“He wanted to see who we are,” says junior guard Isaiah Taylor, who returned to Austin rather than enter the NBA Draft.

Once individual drills began in the summer, the coach was able to introduce the level of competition he expects. Smart even spent some time in the weight room with the players — and not just as a spectator. “For a 38-year-old, he gets after it,” says 6'9" senior Connor Lammert. Because Smart had helped the players become comfortable with him, they were more likely to embrace his demands.

“It’s fun getting after everybody and being competitive,” Taylor says. “I like picking up fullcourt. It allows me to make decisions. The fullcourt one-on-one drills are highly competitive. There’s a lot of energy in the gym.”

Related: Big 12 Basketball 2015-16 Preview

Smart believes this year’s Texas edition will be something of a compromise, since the Longhorns have plenty of size and the type of players who can succeed in the halfcourt, as well as the necessary parts of a pressing system designed to create easy baskets. He’s quick to remind people that he had successful big men at VCU such as Larry Sanders, Jamie Skeen and Juvonte Reddic. “It’s a little unfair that the style has been characterized just by our guards,” Smart says. So, UT will use larger players such as Lammert and Cameron Ridley in a variety of deployments. But the Horns won’t be walking it up, that’s for sure.

“He’s not going to have Cameron pick up 94 feet, but his style is going to be quick and aggressive,” Lammert says. “He doesn’t want any robots on the team. He wants us to make plays. We’re not going to try to swing the ball around and run an offense if we don’t have to.”

Against many A-10 opponents, VCU was able to establish its preferred tempo and then trample overmatched guards. But the Rams never did win an outright regular-season title and captured just one conference tournament (last season). There are those who believe that Smart’s style couldn’t ultimately trump substance. Yes, VCU reached the Final Four in 2011, but the program won only two other NCAA games under Smart’s direction. Since Havoc alone could take the team only so far, Smart may well have come to Austin for the opportunity to match a winning philosophy with better players.

Scheme alone won’t win in the Big 12, which has enjoyed plenty of success in recent years and still has Kansas sitting at the top of the conference pile.

“He’s going to be successful in that style, and he’s going to recruit to that style, and he’s going to get really good players who want to play that way,” Dambrot says. “The difference is that he’s going to play against teams with players as good as his and go against great coaches.

“In that league, he’s not going to outsmart anybody.”

That’s true, but Smart will be bringing something relatively new to the league, and it’s not as if teams will have that much time to prepare for it. Facing the frenetic Longhorns in the second game of a Thursday-Saturday or Saturday-Monday road stretch won’t be that easy. It’s kind of like meeting up with a spread option team in the middle of the football season. The situation calls for a quick retrenching, something that isn’t always accomplished so easily with college students.

“There are great coaches in the Big 12, but one thing about Havoc is that it is a unique style, and teams will only see it a couple times a year,” says Will Wade, who assisted Smart for four seasons at VCU and has returned to the school to take over. “That’s tough on a two-day turnaround. It’s tough to get ready for in a day.”

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So, Smart will have the benefit of a larger pool of talent and the ability to hit opponents with a distinctive style of play. But he has had the opportunity to do that at other schools and resisted the temptation. So, why Texas? And why now?

Smart is diplomatic when he talks about his decision to leave, but this was a good time to go. For all of the commitment VCU made to its program after the Final Four run (a big part of which was Smart’s $1.5 million salary), it became increasingly clear that the Rams could go only so far. Although VCU athletic director Ed McLaughlin was quoted last March as saying it was “laughable” that his coach would leave the school, Smart left two weeks after the article ran.

“I would say everything is related to timing and people and situations,” Smart says about his move. “For instance, there was no way I would have ever left Virginia Commonwealth immediately after the Final Four. I had a good situation at Virginia Commonwealth. I loved the players and interactions with the school.”

And, yet, he accepted an offer from Texas, after turning down UCLA, Minnesota and others.

“There were a lot of things in the decision,” he says. “Texas is a terrific place. It’s a world-class academic institution, with people here who are at the top of their fields. There are so many areas of success here, including basketball success. It’s a great place to live. These things made it the place for me and my wife to come.”

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When Wade was on Smart’s staff at VCU, he said the head coach would often go home at a relatively reasonable hour — say, 8 or 9 p.m. — but continue to work.

“He would still be texting me at 11,” Wade says. “I’m not sure he’s ever fully away from it. That’s the drive and motivation that allows him to be successful. He’s always thinking and always on.”

It doesn’t matter whether Smart varies his style some because of the Texas personnel this season or any other season. We won’t see a hybrid version of the coach. He will remain a person dedicated to supplying energy and demanding a similarly high commitment from those around him.

And though he doesn’t practice with the team anymore, he has issued a couple of weightlifting challenges to his players and might just want to play them in a game of Sit Down.

“If I played him fullcourt one-on-one, I would be highly favored,” Taylor says.

Maybe, but it’s unlikely Taylor would enjoy the experience too much. Smart’s personal brand of Havoc might just be worse than what his teams deliver.