By ushering in the program’s first Final Four appearance, upgrading its conference and becoming a March Madness staple, head coach Shaka Smart cemented a defining legacy at Virginia Commonwealth University. To this day, Smart’s accomplishments remain unmatched by any coach who has led the black and gold in Richmond.
On Wednesday night, Smart lined up on the other side of the court, experiencing a nostalgic atmosphere. He faced an assistant, former recruits and the fans who all embraced him as their head coach just four years ago. But after a tough 54-53 home loss, Smart showed no fondness of his former university.
“Now that the game’s over, it hurts even more because of the familiarity of the opponent,” Smart said.
Last season, Smart returned home to the Siegel Center in Richmond, where he left victorious after an emotional, tightly-contested win. The two-year series moved to Central Texas this year, but Smart’s former assistant from 2009-14, VCU head coach Mike Rhoades, edged Smart in round two of the series.
“It’s not about beating Shaka, honestly,” Rhoades said. “I wouldn’t allow anybody to go that way. VCU’s won games against high majors well before Shaka got here and will (continue) after I’m gone.”
As point guard Matt Coleman’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer rimmed out, it cemented the Longhorns’ third-straight defeat. The pain wasn’t just felt by the former VCU head coach, but his players marinated in the feeling of dissatisfaction as well.
“We wanted to win this one for coach and also for ourselves,” shooting guard Kerwin Roach II said. “We just wanted to make a statement on our home floor. I feel like Shaka is feeling the same pain that we’re all feeling.”
Following the agonizing defeat, a horde of VCU fans gathered in the breezeway outside the arena. With many of them making the long trip to tour Smart’s new house, they made themselves heard by breaking out into chants for over 20 minutes following the final buzzer.
“It’s a huge win for VCU because I’m a new coach, we went on the road to play a Power Five school and we won,” Rhoades said. “It gives confidence to Ram nation, it gives confidence to our players that we can go on the road and beat a really good program.”
But for Rhoades, defeating his former head coach was an emotional moment.
“Playing against Shaka, it stinks. That’s my guy,” Rhoades said. “He’s won a lot of games and he’s gonna win a lot of games, and tonight was just 40 minutes to go at it. Now, we’ll just be cheering for each other.”