When the University of Akron’s opponent in the NCAA Tournament flashed on the big screen televisions set up Sunday in Rhodes Arena, a few players rushed to talk to coach Keith Dambrot and others pointed at him.
That’s because the 12th-seeded Zips’ foe at 9:45 p.m. Thursday in the South Region in Auburn Hills, Mich., is fifth-seeded VCU, coached by former Zips assistant and Dambrot’s closest confidant, Shaka Smart.
“I guess it’s been a really strange year. I guess you can cap it off by playing against your best friend in the NCAA Tournament, or ex-best friend,” Dambrot told a crowd of about 700 minutes later.
With that afterthought, it was hard to tell if a tinge of fear about a possible falling-out crept into Dambrot’s mind.
But for Dambrot’s players, the matchup brought joy.
“I think that’s why we were all so excited,” UA junior forward Nick Harney said. “When we saw VCU, all our eyes lit up, knowing this is personal for coach Dambrot. It will make it all better, more fun as a team.”
Senior forward Chauncey Gilliam said, “I see VCU as our stepbrothers. We’re going to play against somebody just like ourselves, just as tough, just as fast, presses a lot. That’s what we want.”
Dambrot, 54, and Smart, 37, have known each other since they were UA assistants under coach Dan Hipsher during the 2003-04 season. On Smart’s first day, Dambrot took him to Springside Racquet and Fitness Club to work out LeBron James, the St. Vincent-St. Mary star Dambrot coached who had just become the first pick in the NBA draft.
The next year, Dambrot replaced Hipsher. Smart stayed two more seasons before leaving for Clemson.
Since Smart was hired at VCU in 2009 and put the program on the map by reaching the Final Four in 2011, Dambrot and Smart have squared off twice. VCU is 2-0, winning by 17 in a Bracket Busters game in February 2010 and by one in overtime in December 2011.
“We told ourselves a million times we’d never play,” Dambrot said. “It’s fitting everybody keeps putting us up against each other. I guess they’re trying to destroy the relationship.”
After their last meeting, Smart said, “I promise you this, we won’t be scheduling Akron any more because I’d rather both of us win.”
UA director of athletics Tom Wistrcill has a theory what happened.
“It’s just crazy, isn’t it?” Wistrcill said. “I think we’ll say that’s Mike Bobinski, former AD here, having fun with the Akron Zips.”
Bobinski, the chairman of the NCAA selection committee, was UA’s director of athletics from 1994-98.
After UA junior point guard Alex Abreu was arrested March 7 on felony drug charges and indefinitely suspended, Smart was among those who sent video greetings to the Zips to encourage them for the Mid-American Conference Tournament. They defeated Kent State to reach the final for the seventh consecutive year, then rolled past Ohio for the championship.
“He said, ‘You guys can get through this. The program was built on adversity and you can not only win the MAC Tournament, but you can make a run in the NCAA Tournament,”’ Dambrot said of Smart. “He may wish he didn’t say that.”
Dambrot said Smart was the first one to call him after Abreu’s arrest.
“Every time I hit a rut or lose a game, he calls the next morning,” Dambrot said. “We do that for one another. We just trust each other, that’s the bottom line.”
Dambrot said his son Rob chides him that “you can’t let your understudy beat you every time.” But that’s not how Dambrot regards Smart.
“He’s my mentor, too. It works both ways,” Dambrot said. “He’s a genius, the hottest commodity in the country. I always ask people, ‘Is it all right if you’re mentored by someone younger than you?’ I kind of look at it like I’m his oldest brother.”
Dambrot thinks he knows why they hit it off 10 years ago.
“He’s really an intellectual coaching basketball and I’m kind of a businessman coaching basketball,” Dambrot said. “He’s got a really good, strong work ethic and he’s got a chip on his shoulder just like I do. There’s a lot of commonality. He thought he should have been a Division I basketball player and he ended up playing Division III. He uses his coaching as a way to show, ‘Hey, I was a good player.’ I know what makes him tick.”
Knowing each other so well, along with the inner workings of their teams, will make for one of the most interesting first-round games of the NCAA Tournament. Privately, though, Dambrot and Smart are probably dreading it already.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.