Our Coach is Smart-er than Yours: CHD sits down with USA U-19 assistant coach Shaka Smart

The USA Basketball U-19 team spent the past weekend practicing at the Verizon Center before heading to Prague for the FIBA U-19 World Championship.  USA head coach Billy Donovan has a fantastic pair of assistants in Tony Bennett (Virginia) and Shaka Smart (VCU). 

Only a decade ago Coach Smart was getting his introduction to D-1 basketball after being named assistant coach at Akron, and five years ago Donovan hired him as an assistant at Florida.  All Smart has done in the past 4 years as head coach at VCU is win a CBI title in 2010 and then win at least one game in the NCAA tourney during each of the past three seasons.  Jon Teitel got to spend some time talking with the Rams’ coach about working for Donovan and the true meaning of “Havoc”.


In 1999 as a senior at Kenyon College you graduated magna cum laude and were named to the USA TODAY All-USA Academic Team.  What importance do you place on academics? The whole reason why you are in college is to get a degree. If you are fortunate enough to get an education that is paid for by a full scholarship, then your number one goal should be to graduate.

You remain the school’s all-time leader with 542 assists.  What is the secret to being a great point guard? You have to put the team 1st, occasionally be a pass-1st guy, and a good leader. The key is to make all the guys around you better.

In 2008 you became an assistant for Coach Billy Donovan at Florida.  What makes him such a great coach, and what is the most important thing you learned from him? I learned a great deal from Billy, who is a terrific coach that I try to emulate. He places a big emphasis on the psychological side of the game.

In the 2010 CBI as coach at VCU you won five games in 16 days.  What did it mean to you to win the title? We were in a period of transition during my first season at the program with a bunch of new players. It was nice to play in the postseason, even if it was not the specific tourney that we would have preferred. It was great to have a chance to compete for a title, and it provided us with valuable experience that we were able to use the following season.

In the 2011 NCAA tourney Rob Brandenburg blocked a shot at the buzzer to clinch a one-point win over Florida State.  Where does that rank among the most exciting games of your career? It is up there, certainly in the top three of four. It was our only game that March that came down to the final play, all our other games were decided by double-digits. We have a photo in our office of the players and coaches on the bench after Rob’s block. You can see the absolute euphoria on the faces of everyone, it is one of my favorite photos.

In the 2012 NCAA tourney Brandenburg missed a three-point shot at the buzzer in a two-point loss to Indiana.  What are your memories of that game? It was a tough loss, but the Hoosiers were (and still are) a great team. We had a three-point lead with 59 seconds left and had our best player going to the line to shoot a pair of free throws.   However, as we just saw last week in the NBA Finals, it is never over until it is over.

In January you became the second-youngest coach to win 100 games.  What makes you such a good coach, and what are your plans for the future? I hope to stick around as a coach for a long time.  I am not sure what else I would do if I were not coaching. I like helping our players moved forward both on and off the court. I think my greatest strengths as a coach are my energy and enthusiasm.

Your VCU team plays an upbeat style of basketball known as “Havoc”, which uses a full-court press that creates a lot of turnovers.  How do you think such a style would work with team USA, and do you plan on implementing it? “Havoc” actually describes our whole style of play, not just our press. It is a VCU thing so you cannot just put it into action with team USA over a weekend, but we play up-tempo and will occasionally use a full-court press. We have some great personnel here who we can use for that.  Aaron Gordon would be perfect as a pressing power forward due to his size and athleticism.

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