Here's what VCU coach Shaka Smart and Rams players Troy Daniels, Juvonte Reddic and Darius Theus said Wednesday before their game against UA Thursday at The Palace of Auburn Hills. (Courtesy ASAP Sports)
Q. How does it feel being different, being a five seed as compared to last year?
TROY DANIELS: It still feels the same. You know, it's a 5th seed or 11th seed, it really doesn't even matter. You know, I mean, maybe to you guys it does, but we want to just stay focused on, you know, playing the game, winning that game that we play tomorrow.
Q. If you could talk about Coach Smart's reaction to playing his best friend. Have you seen any evidence of it during practice the last couple days?
DARIUS THEUS: He's excited, you know. Best friends or not, you know, he want to win. We played Akron twice before, so it's the same mindset.
At the end of the day, they'll still be best friends. So you know, he's excited about it just like we are, and we just want to come out and get the win for him.
JUVONTE REDDIC: You know, we know they best friends, but it doesn't matter who we playing, what type of relationship they have outside of the court. When we on the court, it's mono e mono, you know, either way, both are going to try to win.
Like I say after the game, they're still going to be best friends, but at the end of the day we want to get the W.
Q. A lot of focus has been put on the pressure that you guys might apply to their back court, but flip it a little bit and talk about what you got to do to deal with their size?
TROY DANIELS: We have to be ready, you know, for Zeke Marshall. He's a big guy, inside and we just have to be physical. And Coach Smart and the coaching staff of VCU is going to have us ready for that. As long as we stick to the game plan then we'll go from there.
JUVONTE REDDIC: They are a lot bigger than us. You know, we play a lot of teams that had an advantage with size, but you know, we have our advantages to. It really comes down to who wants it more. So, you know, size really doesn't matter.
DARIUS THEUS: I mean, like they said, they may have a little size advantage on the inside, but, you know, we got confidence in our bigs to step up to the plate and take on the challenge. We're going to use our advantages also. So you know we just excited for our challenge.
Q. Darius, what did the run to the NCAA do for your program in terms of confidence and also raising the bar about what is a successful run in the NCAA tournament?
DARIUS THEUS: You said a conference tournament?
Q. I'm sorry, in the NCAA tournament. Making the run you guys did, what did that do for your program's confidence in the knack tournament, the long run you guys made that kind of put you guys on the map?
DARIUS THEUS: It gave us a lot of confidence just to show that anything is possible. During this time of year, during March Madness, you just got to come out and play.
I just thank VCU as a program, it just shows what type of players Coach Smart is recruiting and how much heart that we have and we want to come out and prove ourselves any given like just like any other program?
Q. I just wondered if you guys are watching film or whatever you want to call it these days, do you almost feel like you're watching yourselves?
DARIUS THEUS: They have different sets, a little bit different sets than we run, but I guess it goes back to Coach Smart, their coach being best friends, so it may look a little similar. If it looks similar, then we just got to find something in ourselves to make sure we stand out tomorrow.
Q. So you guys have some confidence from getting into the Final Four a couple years ago. What about the other side?
DARIUS THEUS: They got LeBron James; we got Spike Lee (Laughter). No, I'm messing. That's fine, you know, LeBron ain't on the court with them. So it's fine.
We got Coach Smart and, you know, we got a lot of faith in him. And he always has us prepared, always has a plan and a process for us. So you know, we're not too worried about that.
Q. Those of you who played against Akron in the past, what do you remember?
DARIUS THEUS: They're very physical. You know, you can't look at the film and think they're not a physical team. They're very physical. They try to run you off your cuts and things like that. Like y'all said, they're very big in the inside, try to get the ball to Zeke Marshall, and he's a very good player. Like I said, they're very physical and don't let the film fool you and think that they're not. So we just got to be aggressive and try to blow up their sets.
Q. How surprised were you when Coach Smart decided to stay and what makes him a special coach?
TROY DANIELS: I was very excited, you know, because I came in under him. You know, I didn't want to see him leave, regardless of whatever happened. So it was a great feeling. Just wanted to go hard for him in the gym and off season and for myself.
What makes him a great coach is he's very down to earth. He's like a father figure, you know, to a lot of us. He's very just fun to be around. He jokes around with us and stuff. So that's what you need in a coach.
Q. Were you surprised that he's staying?
DARIUS THEUS: Not at all. We kind of figured he would stay with us. And I mean that just shows his loyalty to the program and to his players. You know, like Troy said, just to touch on it more, he is like a father figure to most of us, maybe all of us, and he does spend time with us off the court. I think that's just what make him so special, not just as a coach, but as a person.
Q. Just talk about how you guys are a little bit of an opposite team with their guard losing Abreu. How do you attack that as a weakness when, you know, you don't have their -- whatever your star point guard and you guys have guards to spare?
DARIUS THEUS: We just got to use that to our advantage. They're still college basketball players, so still can't take them lightly at all. But we just want to press, then they can be to our advantage. We can heat them up a little bit, pressure the ball, you know, deny the wings. If we do that, that could be to our advantage. But like I said, he is a college basketball player so we got to be disciplined and smart on the things that we're doing out there in the court.
Q. I was watching the President make his picks and he knew who Coach Smart was. Do you ever feel like he's almost more than a basketball coach?
JUVONTE REDDIC: Not really. You know, we see Coach Smart the same way we've always seen him. He might be more of a celebrity now though because of the success he's had in the past. We don't pay too much to all that attention he be getting. He's still Coach Smart to us.
COACH SMART: Sure. We're excited to be here in Detroit, or Auburn Hills, and looking forward to the game tomorrow night against Akron.
As most of you know, we certainly have some history with Akron, and Keith and I have a lot of history. I've got a ton of respect for their program, their players, the coaching staff, and particularly Keith.
He's come a long way from when certain people thought he was a one-star coach, and now he's a five-star coach. But I'm just really happy for him and his program and the progress that they've made and the position they've put themself in. But now we play him, and we cannot both advance. It's impossible. So certainly at VCU, we're going to do everything we can to put ourself in a position to advance.
Q. Last time you guys played, you said you didn't want to play each other again. Are you just putting your friendship on hold? Were you a little worried when you saw this matchup of what this would do to your relationship?
COACH SMART: Not at all. I mean, Keith's a competitor. I'm a pretty competitive guy. So we both want to win real bad, but we were just together about an hour ago and this head coaches meeting that we have and joking around. After the game whoever doesn't win will probably be pretty upset for a while, but, you know, that kind of fades away too. Certainly the friendship will not be affected in any way.
You know, these things keep kind of creeping up and happening. We didn't choose to play each other in the Bracket Buster, and we did, and then when you do that, you play a return game. I tried to get out of the return game, but actually Terry, Keith's assistant, was having no part of it. And then obviously the NCAA selection committee chose to put us against each other tomorrow night. But as my college coach used to tell me, it's too late to cancel.
Q. Did you see the picture that Keith's wife tweeted of him wearing the VCU shirt?
COACH SMART: She sent that to me actually a week or two ago, so I had the picture.
My wife wanted to put up a picture of me wearing a Fear the Roos shirt, which we still -- we have that shirt from when I was there. And I said no way. I'm not wearing that. Maybe after the tournament.
Keith's always been extremely supportive. We really bounce a lot of ideas off one another throughout the season and the offseason. I think our team, you can see certain things from his philosophy in our team, and maybe you can see some things, you know, that he and I have discussed in how their team plays.
But tomorrow night will be decided by the players, and that's how it should be.
Q. St. Mary's is trying to do what you guys did two years ago. If you were going to give Randy Bennett some advice on how to win five games to get to the Final Four, what would it be?
COACH SMART: Well, I thought they did a great job last night. They're off to a really good start. They played better last night than we did in our first game in Dayton two years ago.
You know, the biggest thing that we emphasize with our team is just to play aggressive, confident, loose basketball in that year. If you remember, we were one of the last teams picked in the NCAA tournament. A lot of people didn't think that we belonged, so we tried to use that as motivation.
I don't think Coach Bennett's team has been as aligned as we were. So I don't know if that's as big of a deal in terms of motivation, but they have a terrific basketball team and I think they can beat anyone. They just have to go out and play their best and play with great confidence.
Really, at this point, they have an advantage, because they have something that very few teams in this tournament have at this point, which is a win under their belt. And I think that could go a long way for them.
Q. I'm using Keith's English here, so bear with me. He said a lot of the pundits are mis-analyzing the game.
COACH SMART: Is he talking about you Al? (Laughter).
Q. He might be. I think he was talking about the tenor of the national media and how they're looking at and viewing the game. Do you share that opinion?
COACH SMART: Well, I think if what he's referring to is that people are talking about he and I, then I think I agree; it's about the players. But to be honest with you, I don't have -- I don't have a great feel for what the national media's saying about this game because I just -- I don't follow that stuff right now. I'm pretty focused on what we're doing.
In terms of style of play, you know, Akron's pressed a pretty good amount this year. So they can press as well.
You know how we play. We try to get up and down. We try to wreak havoc, which is a term that we use. But I think it comes down to both teams executing on the defensive and offensive ends of the floor.
Style of play wise, we'd like for it to be fast. You'd have to ask Keith how he wants it to be.
Q. What did the run you guys made a couple years ago do to change expectations or hopes of your program where just getting in isn't enough and now you're a 5 seed and expected to win?
COACH SMART: Yeah, I think there's probably enhanced expectations certainly around our program. We've always had extremely high expectations on the inside of our program. We expect to win. Any time we take the floor, we want to win.
Certainly the other team's going to feel the same way. But there's more visibility of VCU now. People know how we play. People know what we do, and I think with that comes some expectations that, hey, you should advance, you should go deep into the tournament, particularly because we've done it before. But I think the biggest thing you learn at this time of year, if you've been here before, is should doesn't get it done for you; you got to go make it happen.
Q. They're obviously taller than you, generally speaking. Is that a big deal?
COACH SMART: Yeah. Yes, most teams we've played have been taller than us. Is it a big deal? We'll see. I mean, it's an advantage that Akron has.
I mean, we'd love to have a bunch of 7-footers across the front line that can run and trap and jump and play the way we want to play, but so would Kentucky and -- or Kentucky's getting all of them, but so do big boys.
So I think in recruiting you just have to decide where your emphasis is going to be, and you're going to at times have to give up certain things, maybe a little bit of size, maybe a little bit of strength.
A friend of mine always says recruit them long and lean. We'd like for our guys to just play with a level of aggressiveness and tenaciousness that sometimes can neutralize size.
Q. I'm just curious, what's the biggest thing that Keith taught you?
COACH SMART: Well, he taught me a great deal.
I tell you a quick story. When I went to Akron to work, I was an assistant coach. Keith was not yet the head coach. He was an assistant coach there, and I had never met him. So literally my first day on the job was the first time I met Keith. And a few hours later at launch time, Keith came into my office. He said come on, I want to introduce you to somebody. And he took me to a rec center gym. This was, I think, late May. And LeBron James pulled up in a Hummer and Keith asked me to help him work out LeBron James, which we proceeded to do about two, three times a week for the next two months.
Unbelievable experience, but it just says a lot about Keith. He didn't know me from anyone. Why would he include me in that? But he's just so inclusive, and I think that that is -- it's just an example of the fact that he treats people so well.
Keith always talks about -- because he's been fired, because he's been through tough times, he really reaches out and tries to treat people so well that are going through tough times and that there's no way that they can benefit him or help him in any way. But he just -- that's something that I always admired about Keith and that I try to emulate.
Q. He's got LeBron his side, but you've got Obama on your side. What do you think about that? And one little serious question that's just: Is there ever a chance or a possibility that you guys know too much about each other?
COACH SMART: That's a good question.
Well, to answer your first question, I'm just glad LeBron's not playing in the game (Laughter). It's okay with me that LeBron's rooting for Keith. That's no problem, just as long as he doesn't suit up for the Zips.
If he'd have gone to college, you know, he always says Ohio State, but there might have been a good chance if Keith would have been the coach at the time that he might have gone to Akron.
In terms of President Obama, that was nice of him. Any time he can mention VCU or anything about our program, we'll take it. I think a lot of people know I'm a big fan of his.
In terms of getting in the way, that's the last thing you want to do as a coach. To be honest with you, our style of play, it does take a level of control out of your hands as a coach because you can't script every single pass and every single possession. A lot of it's going to happen fast and a lot of it's going to be determined by the guys on the floor. But that's how we like it. That's how we practice, and hopefully it takes a level of control out of the other coach's hands, too.
It's nothing really that I'm going to do in a game based on my relationship with Keith that's going to get in our guys' way. I mean, the last thing I want to do is affect them and keep them from going out and playing.
I think this game's going to be decided by the players, and that's how it should be.
The guys that go out there and make plays and, you know, play defense the right way, play with a level of aggressiveness, that team's going to win.
Q. Can you reflect on your decision to stay and how much of a comfort zone you've gotten in because of that decision? Back then did you consult Keith at all or have him hear you out?
COACH SMART: I consult Keith on pretty much everything. He and I talk quite a bit.
You know, anything in basketball and then a lot of things outside of basketball we talk about.
In terms of a comfort zone, I actually don't like a comfort zone. I want to continue to be challenged and stretched. And the good thing is at VCU, I have that. So, you know, it's not like we've gotten to the point with our coaching staff where there's a status quo or we're satisfied with where things -- we want to keep moving forward.
I stayed at VCU first and foremost because of our players. 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. And I don't hold anything against coaches that do go to other schools. You know, they got to do what's best for them and their families. You know, and everyone has to make the right decision for their family in that moment, but for me, VCU has provided some terrific opportunities.
There's two reasons I coach. I love helping the guys move forward and I love winning, and winning especially this time of year. I think at VCU we have a really good opportunity as coaches to do both of those things.
Q. You made that video to encourage them after the Abreu thing. Keith wondered if you regretted that. Why did you want to participate?
COACH SMART: Well, because Keith told me to (Laughter). You got to understand, when you have worked for someone in this business, particularly for Keith, it doesn't matter how long you're a head coach, you're always his assistant, too. So he called and he said, you know, Romeo had sent a message and some of the other people connected to the program in the past had sent a message. So he asked me to record something and send it to him, and I did literally 15 minutes later. I do what I'm told.
COACH SMART: Yeah, just because I love the guy.
I tell you what, in coaching, it's a challenging profession, and it's really something that you never perfect. And I don't care how many hundreds of games guys win, you're always looking for something new to get your players' attention, to put yourself in the best position to win the next game or to move forward for a conference tournament.
You know, Keith told me after they lost Alex, he said we have to reinvent ourselves. And I don't think there's a better coach in the country, you know, to work with this team in such a short span of time like that to take that on. And they did a terrific job of putting themself in position to win the NCAA tournament and allowing themselves to be here today.
So I did the video because he asked for it and I was happy to help.
Q. Going back to Selection Sunday, Coach. I talked to Keith. He said when you guys came up with the 5 seed, he had a strange premonition that they were going to come up next. Did you have that same feeling?
COACH SMART: Not at all. I had no idea. I didn't think about it at all.
I saw us with a 5 seed and I was happy because I thought we'd get a 5 or a 6.
You know, the seed doesn't matter so much. It's more the matchup. But I think for our program to receive a 5 seed, which I believe's a second best seed VCU has ever had says a lot about our players and the season that we've had.
But I wasn't expecting Akron. When Akron came up, I was sitting right next to my wife, and it was just kind of a strange feeling, but that feeling came and within the and then we started our preparation.
Q. That day with LeBron and your first day, were you awe struck?
COACH SMART: A little bit.
Q. Or were you more touched by him inviting you?
COACH SMART: Hit me more later. I mean, because I didn't know what we were doing.
Keith's the kind of guy that he's very spur of the moment, and so he said, come on, I want to introduce you to someone. So we drove to some rec center in Akron, and we're standing on the court. And a Hummer pulls up.
And then LeBron walks in the gym and there's nobody in there because it was the middle of the day.
I didn't say that much that day. I mean I was a heck of a rebounder, a passer (Laughter).
That's pretty much how those work outs were for those couple of months. Keith has a great way of telling people the truth, and you're talking about a guy that was about to be the No. 1 pick in the draft and, you know, just signed this huge deal with Nike and all the things that go along with that, but there he was with Keith and me helping Keith, there he was doing defensive slides, you know, in the Rhodes Arena with nobody there. That says something about LeBron, too.