Shaka Smart may be considered a rising star among college basketball coaches, but he had to work his way through the ranks like anyone else in the business.
Long before he made a name for himself by taking little-known VCU to the 2011 Final Four, he was planning travel itineraries and doing other behind-the-scenes chores as director of operations at Dayton under coach Oliver Purnell.
“I loved it at Dayton. Those are two years I’ll never forget — some of the best fans in the country,” said the 35-year-old Smart, who was at UD from 2001-03. “I was fortunate to be there during two great seasons, one year where we won the Atlantic 10 tournament and were a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Great, great memories.”
Smart has had even more memorable experiences during his four seasons with VCU, and his program has attracted a fan base that may be able to rival the Flyer Faithful in enthusiasm.
The Rams (12-3) are expecting their 28th straight sellout when they host Dayton tonight at the Siegel Center, which holds 7,693. They’ve won nine straight and are ranked 24th in the USA Today coaches poll this week.
They were picked third in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll. But in a vote taken among A-10 media after the nonleague season, they were an overwhelming favorite to win the title.
Smart, who took over for former UD star Anthony Grant at VCU, will be facing the Flyers (10-4) for the first time. It’s the Atlantic 10 opener for both teams.
“They’ve got a great team. I think Archie Miller is doing a phenomenal job with that program,” Smart said. “Everything with their team starts with (point guard) Kevin Dillard, but they have some other terrific pieces.
“We’ve got to do a great job on their two starting guards, Dillard and Vee Sanford. They did a terrific job against Alabama, which plays a similar style to us. Dayton really cut up their pressure. They were able to attack their full-court press and get layups and easy baskets.”
The Rams’ non-stop pace flummoxed marquee programs two years ago on their way to the national semifinals. They upset Southern Cal, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas before being eliminated by Butler.
They were knocked out of the NCAA tourney last season by Indiana in a tight game in the round of 32.
Asked if this year’s team resembles his last two, Smart said: “There’s some similarities. We’ve played the same way since we got here. There’s been personnel changes, obviously. But I think we’re pretty perimeter-oriented still.
“That Final Four team had a great inside player in Jamie Skeen, but when we play with aggressiveness and have a level of discipline on the defensive end, we have a chance to be a really good team.”