Georgetown's exit hardly a Shaka
Virginia Commonwealth using media skepticism to fuel a tournament run
CHICAGO -- At Hot Coach University, Shaka Smart is looking like the next valedictorian. It's almost graduation time.
On Friday night, Smart, the man with the Hollywood name, cut an unimposing figure on the sideline, a 33-year-old whippet-thin former Division III point guard with a shaved head and a neat goatee. He implores his team to force "havoc" on the court, but he was cool and collected this night.
On the opposite sideline, John Thompson III, the famous well-pedigreed son of Big John, couldn't believe what he was watching. Another year, another mid-major sending his team home after one game in the NCAA tournament.
Thompson was visibly distraught through a smattering of questions. He had reason to be -- this loss was embarrassing.
Georgetown is on a bad postseason slide since making the Final Four in 2007. It lost to Davidson in 2008, made the NIT in 2009 and got embarrassed by the Ohio Bobcats last year.
No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth University, a team that had to play in the "First Four" on Wednesday, had the legs and the jump shots to knock off the No. 6 seed Hoyas 74-56.
"To state the obvious, it's easy to compare," Thompson said of the losses. "It was in the first round and it was a difficult loss. It hurts."
Games like this are why the NCAA tournament is an annual obsession and this nightcap totally made up for three lackluster games preceding it at the United Center.
VCU, coming off a win over USC in Dayton on Wednesday, looks like it has the potential to make a George Mason run.
And while we're on the subject, the Colonial Athletic Association is 2-0 against the Big East in the tournament, after George Mason beat Villanova earlier in the day.
It's silly to call this a major upset, and VCU is no weak mid-major and certainly no stranger to postseason heroics -- Eric Maynor's jumper against Duke in 2007, anyone? -- and has sent both Maynor and Larry Sanders to the NBA in recent years, but the Rams were pilloried after making the tournament as an at-large team.
The Rams were 23-11 and their best nonconference win was against UCLA in November. They lost four of five to end the regular season before a nice run to the finals of the CAA tournament.
Smart, who has been an instant success in his two years as a head coach, wisely used the critiques, which spread like wildfire on Twitter, as fuel. Every coach at every level wants an excuse to tell his team it's an underdog.
"No doubt about it," Smart said. "Our guys are competitors. They love to respond when people disrespect them, when people doubt them. We had a game earlier in the season where an assistant coach came out in the newspaper and said that we couldn't defend. We went out and held that team to under 50. So I learned early with this team that they like a challenge."
Senior point guard Joey Rodriguez, who had 17 points, seven assists and just two turnovers, said the criticism burned him. He played on the 2009 tournament team that lost to UCLA 65-64.
"Any time people disrespect you, especially on national TV, it kind of hurts you a little bit," he said. "We had an opportunity to come out there and prove people wrong, and hopefully we keep it going."
This time, the challenge was thrown down by broadcasters, especially ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who said the Rams couldn't guard him. Smart used that footage in the team's meeting Friday afternoon.
"Today, before we had lunch, we sat down and watched a video of Joe Lunardi saying we couldn't guard him," Smart said to laughter. "He said it over and over in the video, 'They can't guard me, they can't guard me,' while we were showing clips of Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark. Our guys responded to that obviously. They did tonight."
It's funny, because the same motivating tactic was used against Georgetown last year, when Ohio coach John Groce used similar comments to motivate his Bobcats to a 97-83 win. Maybe John Thompson, who called the game for Westwood One radio, can get his media brethren to lay off next year.
"That's the nature of the beast," Thompson III said. "It's part of the game, part of the tournament. It is what it is."
Georgetown got Chris Wright back from injury, but he couldn't get in sync, and his 3-for-13 shooting night was indicative of the team's effort. The Hoyas shot 5-for-26 from 3-point range and committed 17 turnovers.
VCU hit 12-of-25 3s and turned the ball over just six times. Brandon Rozzell came off the bench to score 26 points in 28 minutes, hitting six 3-pointers. The Rams certainly looked like the better team and certainly had the better coach.
Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant used the school to jump to bigger jobs in recent years, and Smart, who turns 34 in a few weeks, will likely do the same.
Certainly his star will never be higher if the Rams beat Purdue on Sunday.
Heck, during halftime, I joked he was probably already interviewing with Tennessee.
While Thompson III has the pedigree, Smart played at Kenyon College in bucolic Gambier, Ohio. If he goes to the Sweet 16, he might be the most famous alum since Paul Newman and Rutherford B. Hayes. (Or if you're into TV, Josh Radnor from "How I Met Your Mother.") Senior point guard Joey Rodriguez, who is generously listed at 5-foot-10 and swears he's taller than his coach, said Smart is "like our best friend."
"He has a bright future," Rodriguez said, all but acknowledging the inevitable, "and we're going to go deep in this tournament."
Smart was a big-time recruiter under DePaul's Oliver Purnell at Dayton and Clemson, and helped land a nationally-touted recruiting class in his one year at Florida, but he's never made it past the first game of the NCAAs. Now he's 2-0.
He also knows the Rams' underdog days are over. His days of being an up-and-comer likely are, too.
"I think that stuff is kind of fading now," he said. "We've proven over the last two games that we belong here, we more than belong here. Sunday's going to be more about us and Purdue and who's the better team."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.