AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Akron coach Keith Dambrot considers VCU’s Shaka Smart family.
Dambrot recalled crying tears of joy when he heard Smart coached the Rams past Kansas to earn a spot in the 2011 Final Four.
“That guy’s my brother,” Dambrot said. “I love Shaka ...” and he wants to send him home.
Dambrot believes an upset is possible if the 12th-seeded Zips can slow down the fifth-seeded Rams today.
That won’t be easy.
Smart has installed a high-tempo defense and offense that have served his program well. The style of play helped VCU reach the Final Four in 2011 and make a third straight trip this year to the NCAA Tournament.
“We try to get up and down,” Smart said. “We try to wreak havoc.”
The Rams have their highest seeding since being a No. 2 in 1985.
Back then, Smart was 7 and Dambrot was a 26-year-old coach at Tiffin University, the first team he led.
Dambrots’ coaching journey later took him to Ashland and Central Michigan and eventually to Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where he coached LeBron James.
After James graduated from high school, he worked out with Dambrot, who was then an Akron assistant, who introduced Smart to him on his first day on the Zips’ coaching staff.
“Unbelievable experience, but it just says a lot about Keith,” Smart recalled. “He didn’t know me from anyone. Why would he include me in that? But he’s just so inclusive. It’s just an example of the fact that he treats people so well.”
The Miami Heat superstar is close to the Akron program. Not only do the Zips wear his endorsed gear, but James spends part of the summer on campus playing pickup games with Akron’s players. They cherish the chance to be around him, and he seems to get something out of it, too.
“It’s just great being around those guys,” James said. “I enjoy it.”
James stays in frequent touch with Dambrot and spoke with him after the Zips won the Mid-American Conference title last weekend.
“LeBron ain’t on the court with them,” VCU guard Darius Theus said. “So, it’s fine.
“We got coach Smart and we got a lot of faith in him.”
Smart strengthened his players’ belief in him when he chose to stay two years ago, turning down chances to coach bigger programs such as North Carolina State, after leading the Rams on a surprising run to the national semifinals in his second season as a head coach.
Looking back, Smart insists it was an easy decision.
“I stayed at VCU first and foremost because of our players,” he said. “I love our guys and I love coaching them and working with them. I really couldn’t see, especially after the year we went to the Final Four, going in the locker room literally a few days later and saying, ‘Hey, guys, thanks, but I’m out of here.’ That just didn’t make much sense.”
While both coaches understand being the focus of attention leading up to their matchup in the NCAA Tournament, both are trying to deflect attention toward the players who will make shots and stops to determine who wins and advances.
VCU has four double-digit scorers, led by guard Treveon Graham, who averages 15.5 points.
The quick and pesky Rams have only one player, 6-foot-9 forward Juvonte Reddic, taller than 6-5 in their usual playing rotation.
The Zips, meanwhile, can counter with 7-0 center Zeke Marshall, the MAC’s all-time leading and active NCAA-leading shot blocker, who scores a team-high 13 points a game, and five other players in their rotation who are at least 6-7.
“Most teams we’ve played have been taller than us,” Smart said. “Is it a big deal? We’ll see.”
Dambrot said size will be an advantage for Akron if it can slow down the pace of play without suspended point guard Alex Abreu, who was arrested on drug trafficking charges two weeks ago.
“We’ve got a good chance,” he said. “We’re better than what people think.
“Relatively speaking, it’s the best team I’ve ever had other than when I had LeBron in high school.”