Divided And Conquered

Journalism. We’ve heard a lot about that lately.

I do not profess to be anything close to a professional journalist; as a blogger, I’m simply an untrained observer who happens to share some of those observations once in a while. But that doesn’t automatically mean I’m uninformed. Nor does it mean that I don’t follow certain practices of good journalism.

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The VCU Rams: Getting along better than their old coach

For instance, there’s the “follow-up.” You report on something, then you go back a little later and see what progress–if any–has been made by the subject of that report.

For instance, a little over a year ago I commented upon Shaka Smart’s move from head coach of the men’s basketball team at Virginia Commonwealth–where he had had some notable success–to take the same position at the substantially higher profile University of Texas at Austin. I noted that the move, which many observers would have characterized as a “no-brainer,” carried with it a certain amount of risk. Thus, that story would be a good candidate for one of those follow-ups. How has it gone for coach Smart down there “deep in the heart of”?

Say what? 11-22. Yeesh. And no NCAA Tournament bid this season, after bowing out last year in the first round? With what was arguably still Rick Barnes’ team? Hmmm. Sorry I asked.

The DFR logo with BasketballNow, there’s no reason to get too excited about this season’s lack of success at Kevin Durant’s alma mater. It’s just one season, after all. Of course, such levelheadedness has never stopped Longhorns boosters from being, well, Longhorns boosters before. Smart is soon likely to feel a certain amount of heat under his seat that has little to do with the scorching Texas summers.

It’s difficult to sugarcoat this season’s results in Austin. Texas finished dead last in the Big 12 this season; they were, in effect a 12th place team in a 10 team conference. Ouch.

“…as good as the Rams are now, as good as Smart is as a coach, as good as the Longhorns may yet become…what might have happened had Smart stayed at VCU?”

However, as noted, it’s just one year. In the long run, Smart will probably right the ship and get the Longhorns back into a competitive posture again–if he’s given the chance. It’s still Texas, after all: lots of prominence, lots of money, lots of recruiting power.

Ultimately, the question of how much success Smart and the Longhorns will have is a subject for burnt-orange-tinged navel-gazing; few outside the Lone Star state are likely to get too worked up about it.

The bigger concern, from this vantage, lies in how Smart’s story is playing out on the bigger stage, and what it means for the structure of college sports in general. To figure that out, we need to look not just to Texas but to the East as well–back to Smart’s former team, the VCU Rams.

One wonders if coach Smart’s feelings might be a tad hurt by this, but: it doesn’t seem like the Rams have missed him all that much. Coach Will Wade has kept VCU humming along nicely for a “mid-major” in the Atlantic 10: the Rams finished this season 26-8, one win better than last year’s record, good enough for 2nd place in the conference, though they slipped against Rhode Island in the A-10 tournament. Wade’s squad will make another appearance–their 7th consecutive–in the “big dance” when they take on St. Mary’s in the opening round this week. And last year’s Rams bested last year’s Longhorns, advancing one round further than their former coach’s team in the 2016 Tournament.

Clearly, the Rams have it going on. And coach Smart played a large part in that, taking the team to five straight NCAA bids–note, Longhorns fanatics: with never a losing record–including their only national semifinal appearance back in 2011. VCU seems to have what it takes to compete at the highest level of the game, and to do so in the long-term.

But they had their greatest advancement with a guy who’s no longer there.

This raises what is, I hope, the obvious question: how would things have played out these last two years, and in the future, for VCU if Smart had stayed there and continued the process of building the team into a powerhouse?

It’s worth noting that it was during Smart’s tenure with the Rams that the school jumped from the Colonial Athletic Association up to the Atlantic 10 conference. One can quibble about which conference represents a higher class of basketball; their records of achievement in terms of March Madness are roughly the same, with neither conference producing an actual champion.

Which, of course, is exactly the point: Smart moved on from the Rams because–in the eyes of college basketball experts, including coaches like Smart himself–teams in the CAA or the A-10 aren’t supposed to win the championship. They’re there to be the fodder, the minor obstacles that the worthy schools step over on their marches to their ultimate victories. That’s why Smart’s move to Texas was a no-brainer; a Big 12 school is automatically in the club, and thus is eligible to win the NCAA Tournament, in a way that no VCU can ever be.

And–of course, part two–that result can continue to be guaranteed. How? By blocking whatever efforts might be made on behalf of those “unwashed rabble” schools, the program-building work that’s designed to help them break down the wall and gain entry into that inner circle. Like, for instance, when one of those impudent, upstart schools finds a coach who can out-recruit and out-scheme the big boys, you toss a Brinks truck at him and hire him away to one of the acceptable schools–even a school like Texas, which (truth be told) has not exactly done sterling work on the hardwood despite the rest of its athletic excellence.

It’s a point that has been raised on these pages before: college sports are, to put it not-so-mildly, rigged. (See pieces such as this and this for my previous contributions to the genre. Those pieces specifically address football, but the principles apply to basketball, too.) The whole thing is set up to ensure that that Duke or Kentucky jersey that you bought will always be in fashion–because those are the teams that “the rules” say are supposed to be the winners. And if it looks like someone might come along and beat the royalty at their own (owned?) game? Tilt the floor enough to make sure that the royalty wins and the commoners don’t.

You have to wonder: as good as the Rams are now, as good as Smart is as a coach, as good as the Longhorns may yet become…what might have happened had Smart stayed at VCU and kept building, and building, and building? What might have happened had Brad Stevens stayed at Butler after his two title game appearances? What might happen at any of the non-royalty schools if a transformational figure not only succeeds there, but sticks around and wins as well?

Mike Krzyzewski has stayed at Duke all these years, after all that success, despite numerous opportunities to move along to the pros–or presumably another school, though few institutions have pockets as deep as Duke (and still care about athletics that much). Kryzewski wasn’t building the Blue Devils from nothing–Duke had some history before he arrived–but neither was Smart at VCU. Could Smart have been another Coach K if he’d stuck around at VCU?

A more interesting example, perhaps: everyone knows that John Wooden built UCLA into an all-time powerhouse in the 1960s. What few remember now is that, back in the 1950s, Wooden had a rival at Cal in the person of Pete Newell. Newell’s Golden Bears won the NCAA championship in 1959. Wooden’s teams had their greatest successes in the 60s–only after Newell had retired from coaching to be Cal’s AD. As the Bears’ coach, Newell had a winning record against Wooden’s Bruins. Newell wasn’t lured away by money to the NBA or another school; he retired due to health concerns. How might the history of college basketball have been different if he had not? Wooden and Bruins fans back in the day were exceedingly grateful that Newell did leave when he did.

It matters who coaches where. Shaka Smart may yet lead the Longhorns to the Final Four, or even a championship. Or perhaps Will Wade will take the Rams to greater heights than they’ve ever known before. But if neither of those things happen–and college hoops history says it won’t–we’ll be left to wonder what might have happened if Smart had had more dedication to building up VCU and tearing down the NCAA’s tilted structure, and less interest in chasing a few more dollars.

And, of course, many of us just might also be wondering: is this divide and conquer game the sport I really thought I was watching?


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