The strangest thing about Shaka Smart and VCU is that he's still there.
Don't get us wrong, we're not making a snarky comment on VCU. Far from it. It's a neat school. It's in a wonderful city (although the murder rate does give one pause), located at the bottom of Richmond's Fan. Monument Avenue is one of the most amazing streets in the U.S. If you go to the right, facing VCU, there are gorgeous streets and rowhouses, a remarkable mix of Northern architecture and Southern culture. If you go to the left, again facing VCU, you go down Grace Street. On Grace Street, you might find gentrification now, but you might also find transvestite prostitutes and winos passed out on the corner. Or at least you would have in the past.
VCU is a commuter campus filled with self-motivated students. The athletic department for years recruited internationally, though we don't know how true that is anymore. It's not for Smart's team certainly.
In short, there's a lot to keep Smart there. It's a beautiful city and a university with a lot of character.
But you do wonder, because the guy is the real deal. Consider the recent history of VCU's coaches. Sonny Smith, who coached Charles Barkley at his peak before falling to VCU, was well-known for two things: first, being truly funny. And second, for wanting to be insulated from his player's academics. No one wanted him to know anything because he got upset and nervous.
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When he'd had enough, he went off to do radio with Wimp Sanderson. His assistant, Mack McCarthy took over. He'd left coaching for a time before returning as an assistant. He was really pretty good, but perhaps like Bobby Cremins, some parts of the game got to him.
When he left, Jeff Capel took over, making a huge impression; Anthony Grant followed him. Both went on to major jobs, Capel to Oklahoma and Grant to Alabama. They're major institutions with huge budgets and top-flight competition, not to mention huge paychecks. So why not Smart? Only he can answer.
But while he's been at VCU, the program has been stable and he's done a remarkable job building and sustaining it. Deep tournament runs are no longer a surprise and upsets of programs like Memphis are no surprise.
And they were right there with Duke.
VCU puts Havoc on their warmups - sort of an update on 40 Minutes of Hell - and they tried to impose it on Duke.
Early on, it almost worked as VCU went up 6-0 and then built a 13-7 lead before Duke pulled itself together. The Devils went up 14-13 and after a VCU basket briefly took the lead back, never trailed again.
The havoc didn't work very well, thanks largely to Quinn Cook, who was very steady throughout (nine assists to three turnovers), Mason Plumlee, who broke the press on a consistent basis when the guards were pressured, and Ryan Kelly, who brought the ball in often without losing it to VCU's aggressive defense.
Duke in fact finished with just eight turnovers in the face of constant pressure.
VCU's half-court defense was frustrating though: there weren't a whole lot of easy shots. Everyone had to work for what they got, and not just inside: Duke shot just 3-15 from three point range, sort of proving the notion that an 80% performance (against Minnesota) cannot be repeated.
Fortunately, Duke's defense was just as solid. VCU shot just 33.3% and 22.2% from three point range.
Where VCU had a significant advantage was on the boards: the Rams outrebounded Duke 37-31 and 15-4 offensively.
Nobody was better than Winston-Salem's Juvonte Reddic, who finished with 15 boards, five offensive, and Treveon Graham, who ended up with eight boards and five on offense, despite being just 6-5.
But ultimately, the game probably came down to free throws. In the last seven minutes, the Rams missed six in a row and gave up eight potential points overall.
By the time Rob Brandenburg actually hit a couple, he cut the lead down to six with 2:23 left. You can't say what would have happened if it had been say a one-point game, but you can say what did: free throws killed Smart's team.
The bigger question, though, is who played with more poise. On that score, there is no question: it was Duke.
With the exception of the championship against Louisville, Duke has got what it came for: Plumlee is a star, Kelly is thoroughly reliable, Curry has shown great guts and leadership, Rasheed Sulaimon has shown his potential and real maturity. And perhaps most importantly, Quinn Cook is becoming the point guard Duke has been hoping he would be.
There may be setbacks in the Louisville game - Curry may have difficulty with his leg playing three days in a row, and Louisville has a great shotblocker in Gorgui Deng, who will be the biggest challenge Plumlee has faced so far this season. But Duke has advanced a great deal in these games.
Like many people, we have been dismayed at the quality of officiating in these games. They clearly missed the out-of-bounds play when Josh Hairston's foot was on the paint, and they also missed the (inadverdent) strike in the face to Tyler Thornton which led to a VCU fast break.
We've learned a lot from our friend the Playcaller, who regularly explains why officials do what they do - and it's rarely what we expect.
Nonetheless, the quality of officiating at Atlantis has been, to the layman's eye anyway at best erratic.