Coach Shaka Smart, VCU building for the future

AP Sports WriterJuly 11, 2014 

VCU Shaka Smart Basketball

FILE - In this March 20, 2014, file photo, VCU coach Shaka Smart sports a smile during practice for the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in San Diego. Smart is loving life. He's got a nationally regarded team, perhaps its highest-ranked recruiting class and a $25 million practice facility under construction.

LENNY IGNELZI, FILE — AP Photo

— Shaka Smart isn't resting on his success at VCU.

He's help build a nationally regarded men's basketball program. Smart has a lucrative contract, a $25 million practice facility under construction and a 137-46 career record. The 137 victories in five seasons is tied for the second-most at the Division I level.

To ensure the momentum continues, Smart signed a top-20 recruiting class for this season. All four signees are on campus, doing weight training and conditioning, weekly practices with the coaching staff and taking classes.

The eight weeks of summer are a much appreciated time, Smart said during a recent break from one of his basketball camps, to help the players make the transition from high school to the rigors of college.

"It's a shock physically and a little bit mentally too because it's a lot more demanding than what they are used to," the 37-year-old Smart said, "but they're doing really well. They're responding well."

The players, led by 6-foot-7 forward Terry Larrier from New York, join a program that made a huge splash by going from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011, and hasn't stopped winning ever since.

Only 10 schools have won more than the Rams in Smart's five seasons, and only former Butler coach Brad Stevens, with 139 victories, won more in his first five seasons as a Division I head coach.

Next season will begin with VCU riding a 19-game home winning streak, and with 50 consecutive home sellouts. The Rams also have made the NCAA tournament a habit, selected in each of the last four seasons.

Smart is intent, though, on not letting the success cause a change in approach.

The practice facility will surely be an aide in recruiting, and while Smart agrees that he and his coaches get to talk to higher caliber recruits than in the past, he's still looking for the same qualities, including a willingness to play defense for 94 feet, a style the Rams call "havoc."

"We try to get the best guys that match us and fit us, and the best players in recent memory in this program have not been highly regarded recruits, at least relative to people who go to the ACC or so-called big leagues," Smart said.

"I mean, how many ACC schools passed on Eric Maynor?" he said of VCU's career scoring leader, now in the NBA. "But then two, three years later, they say, 'Dang, what were we thinking?' How many schools are there between Port St. Lucie, Florida, where (Milwaukee Bucks forward and former VCU star) Larry Sanders is from, and Richmond, Virginia? He had two or three scholarship offers. I think it's important for us to stay true to the things that we value and the things that have helped people be successful at VCU."

The Rams had two seniors this season, including Juvonte Reddic, a 6-foot-8 forward who was largely overshadowed in high school, but graduated as one of its career leaders in points and rebounds.

Smart hopes to find, or develop, the same willingness to work in Larrier, 6-9 Mike Gilmore from Tallahassee, Florida, 6-7 Justin Tillman of Detroit and guard Jonathan Williams of Richmond.

"A good friend of mine was a recruiting guru for many years and he used to say, 'In recruiting, you are making extremely important decisions based on incomplete information,'" Smart said, smiling.

"Football coaches say one of the most nerve wracking days of their year is when those kids that they brought in first put on the pads. ... When they first put on the pads and hit, that's when they know, 'We got it right on this guy and, on this guy, he's probably not going to make it,'" he said.

"It's not that stark for us, but ... you don't know that for sure until they get there."

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