GAMBIER — Two weeks ago, Shaka Smart was known locally only as a great player on Kenyon College’s basketball team.
Now, he’s known as the coach of an NCAA Final Four team.
Smart’s Virginia Commonwealth University earned an unlikely Final Four bid this past weekend, defeating top-seeded Kansas, 71-61. It’s the first Final Four bid for VCU, a team which many critics thought didn’t even belong in the tournament.
Instead, the Rams rattled off five straight wins to earn a spot in college basketball’s biggest dance.
Smart’s success comes as no surprise to those who knew him from his Kenyon days.
“I knew from day one that he was going to be special,” said Bill Brown, Smart’s former coach at Kenyon, now head coach at California University (Pa.). “He has a tremendous basketball I.Q.”
Brown coached Smart through his sophomore campaign. Smart’s freshman season was 1996-97, the year after Brown guided the Lords to the NCAA Division III Elite Eight.
“I put him on the court and handed him the ball,” Brown recalled. “He absolutely took over the leadership on the court. He is very, very competitive.”
Brown said his coaching skills were evident even as a freshman.
“He was able to convince the entire team that he was their leader,” Brown said, “and that they were going to follow him. He sacrificed himself offensively to be a leader and a catalyst on the floor.”
Smart’s 542 career assists at Kenyon is a school record, leading the closest competitor by over 200. In his senior season, Smart averaged 7.4 assists per game, a record that hasn’t even been approached — except by Smart himself, who had averaged 5.4 assists two years before. The four-year starting point guard is also third in career steals at Kenyon with 133.
“Having a point guard like (Smart) is invaluable,” Brown said. “Coaches always talk about the ‘bigs,’ those guys who are 6-foot-8 or taller. You can have all the ‘bigs’ you want, but if you don’t have a good point guard, it’s like having a Lexus without a steering wheel. Smart was that steering wheel.”
It wasn’t just on the court where Smart was successful. He entered Kenyon having totaled a near-perfect SAT score. At the college, he earned the Outstanding History Student award.