ARLINGTON, Va. — Shaka Smart’s newest addition can dribble — and isn’t a fazed at all by Virginia Commonwealth’s run to the top rung of college basketball.
Zora Sanae Smart arrived on Sept. 25, the first child of the Smart and wife Maya.
“That’s changed my life,” Smart said, “a whole lot more than the Final Four.”
Fortunately, there’s plenty of advice out there for new fathers. Much harder to find is a blueprint for CAA coaches who have suddenly burst into stardom. In fact, there’s only one precedent: George Mason’s Jim Larranaga, who took the Patriots to the Final Four in 2006.
Tuesday’s CAA media day marked a changing of the guard. Larranaga used to be the star of the show, but he’s gone — having left GMU after 14 seasons for Miami (Fla.). Instead, it was Smart who sat at the round table — the other coaches had smaller, square ones — and attracted the constant gaggle of reporters.
The 34-year-old coach took it all in stride. He said he’s talked to people from George Mason’s staff to get an idea of what to expect from mid-major, Final Four aftermath. Smart, who spent a season on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida a few years ago, also sought out the Gators coach who won back-to-back NCAA titles.
“His biggest thing is, you’ve got to get your guys to understand that the Final Four run you did last year is not going to win you any games,” Smart said. “In fact, it’s going to provide the other team with motivation, so you’d better be ready to go.”
It’s a balancing act. VCU obviously wants to feed off the Final Four without giving the sense that it’s content to live in the past.
“Shakespeare said the joy’s soul lies in the doing, what’s won is done,” Smart said. “It’s over with. I don’t sit there every night and look at my Final Four ring and dream about last year. I want to focus on having the success again. But it is something that as a basketball program you want to utilize in recruiting, in the branding of your program, in the marketing of your team, and that’s something that we’ll do.”
Among the post-Final Four perks: Throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field — where Smart attended games as a young fan — and attending the White House Correspondents Dinner. But one of the trappings of success is learning how to say “no” a whole lot more.
“It would have been very easy over the last several months for me to just do speaking engagements and nothing else,” Smart said. “But then I wouldn’t have been doing my job.”
And, of course, recruiting is now a bit easier. He no longer coaches for V-C-Who?
“I will say this,” he said. “We have not called a kid since April that has said, ‘Where is VCU?’ or ‘Who is VCU?’ “
Smart has only one senior on this season’s roster, and his Rams were picked to finish a modest third in the preseason poll released Tuesday. Drexel was picked to win the league, followed by George Mason, VCU, Old Dominion, James Madison, William & Mary, Delaware, Hofstra, Northeastern, North Carolina-Wilmington, Georgia State and Towson.
But being the third-best team in the CAA isn’t such a bad gig any more. The conference sent three teams to the NCAA tournament last season, further shedding its one-bid label.
“We were also picked to lose every game we played in the NCAA tournament,” said Smart, whose team knocked off Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas before losing to Butler in the national semifinals. “I don’t really go much by what prognosticators say.”