Shaka Smart only spent one year as an assistant at Florida before moving on to his first head coaching job at VCU.
Yet Smart considered that one season under Billy Donovan instrumental to his development.
“It was as important as anywhere I’ve been,” Smart said. “The opportunity to work for Coach Donovan, who in my mind is the best coach in college basketball, I learned so much even though it was only one year. I learned so much not just from him but Larry Shyatt, Rob Lanier, the whole coaching staff.”
Smart, 34, led VCU to an improbable run to the Final Four during the 2011 NCAA Tournament. He was UF’s third assistant during the 2008-09 season. During that time, Smart said he studied Donovan’s offense and motivational tactics.
“Most of what we do offensively I learned from him, a lot of pick-and-roll, a lot of our transition offense,” Smart said. “But more than anything, the mental part of the game, motivation, finding ways to reach guys.”
Smart used the motivation card to his advantage throughout the tournament. When ESPN analysts Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale questioned VCU’s selection into the tournament, Smart showed the videos to his team. VCU responded by pulling off upsets against Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to reach its first Final Four in history.
Smart nearly wound up facing his mentor in the Final Four. But the Gators couldn’t hold a 11-point lead in the second half and fell to Butler 74-71 in overtime. Butler went on to knock off VCU in the Final Four.
Smart said his senior point guard, Joey Rodriguez, predicted a potential matchup. Rodriguez played high school basketball at Lake Howell with former Gator players Chandler Parsons and Nick Calathes.
“He always said all year long, ‘We’re going to play Florida in the tournament, we’re going to play Florida in the tournament’,” Smart said. “I was thinking, ‘Yeah, whatever’, and then when we won a couple of games you kind of looked and said well if they win and if we win, it would have been interesting if it happened. Obviously a terrific season for them as well.”
During the offseason, Smart turned away overtures from North Carolina State, Tennessee and Georgia Tech to stay at VCU. VCU rewarded Smart with an eight-year contract extension that will pay him $1.2 million annually.
“I’ve moved around a lot and I particularly don’t want to move around much more,” Smart said. “I’ve got a great situation, a great athletic director, a terrific following at VCU for our programs. There’s really no reason to leave.”
Smart said reaching the Final Four for the first time as a coach hasn’t changed him.
“It’s changed my life in terms of the way people treat me but it hasn’t changed me,” Smart said. “I’m the same person. I do things the same way, I look at things the same way. But it’s definitely changed my schedule. I’m a little busier. And more people know who I am.”
— UCF coach and former UF assistant Donnie Jones said Florida is not on their schedule this year. “Maybe we’ll do something the following year,” Jones said. UCF upset Florida 57-54 at the inaugural Citrus Sports Classic at Amway Arena in Orlando last December. This upcoming season, Florida is playing Stetson in the Citrus Classic in Orlando on Nov. 28. The Gators are expected to release their full basketball schedule next month.