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So this is friendship.
Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart was confident that Thursday night’s first-round NCAA South Regional matchup with the University of Akron would not damage his relationship with his best friend, Zips coach Keith Dambrot.
But VCU’s 88-42 victory could make for a tough telephone conversation one of these days.
To everyone in The Palace of Auburn Hills, it looked like Smart ran up the score. Michigan fans seated behind me on press row asked what Smart was doing in the second half.
“They’re supposed to be best friends,” was the reporters’ collective response.
The 46-point margin of victory was the largest between Nos. 5 (VCU) and 12 (UA) seeds in NCAA history. Before the night ended, the Zips were saved from the dubious distinction of being on the wrong end of the biggest NCAA Tournament margin against any team lower than a 3 seed when No. 4 Syracuse trounced Montana 81-34.
Asked about keeping his foot on the gas in the second half, Smart said, “There’s a lot of time on the clock. We’re not going to fall back and play zone. It’s just really not what we do.
“We stopped trapping in the press with about nine, 10 minutes left. With about six, seven minutes left, we stopped pressing altogether. It’s not like we stayed in our press the whole game.”
But Smart said the Rams weren’t “just going to pack it in.”
“Our guys are going to play aggressive on the defensive end even if we’re just playing half-court defense,” he said. “We got some deflections even in the final minutes. It’s just how we play. You can’t turn a guy off.
“The last thing I would ever want to do to any coach, particularly one of my best friends, is run up the score. That’s just not what we do, and you can look back at our games. We had guys in that typically don’t play very much and they did a good job. It was just a tough matchup for Akron. They have a very good team, but tonight without their point guard and because of the matchup, it was going to be very tough.”
It could have been worse. VCU had an 88-42 lead with 8:57 left. After that, the Zips committed three turnovers. The Rams scored on a layup, a jumper, a 3-pointer, a dunk and two free throws. They took two more jumpers that missed and muffed three layups. The final points by a VCU starter came on Rob Brandenberg's 3-pointer with 6:14 to play.
But the game was essentially over when VCU led 21-9 with 13:16 remaining in the first half. It was certainly decided by the time the Rams opened a 21-point bulge on Reddic’s layup with 3:02 remaining in the first half. Smart could have taken his starters out long before he did, especially with Thursday’s tip at 9:36 p.m. and a second-round game looming against athletic Michigan. (Which he learned hours later would start at 12:15 p.m. Saturday).
It seemed as if Smart was more concerned about making a statement about his team, his program and his coaching reputation than what he was doing to his best friend. It appeared he was trying to send a message to future foes that the Rams will go for the jugular at every opportunity.
I can’t fault Smart for his pedal-to-the-metal approach. But Thursday night and this morning I can’t think of anyone who would have done to his best friend what Smart did other than Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer. It was like a Southeastern Conference football game broke out in the midst of the NCAAs.
Afterward, Dambrot was diplomatic.
“He’s got a job to do,” Dambrot said. “His job is to get them ready to win the next game. I don’t take any offense to it. He did what he had to do. Our misfortune was his game. This is a big boys’ game. You’ve got to take your butt whipping sometimes. Won’t be the last.”
Inwardly, Dambrot had to be seething. A heated phone call to the former UA assistant, whom Dambrot met in 2003, worked with through 2006 and remained close with ever since, seemed to be in the offing.
I understand that these things happen in basketball. Smart wasn’t going to tell his players to quit. The “Havoc” theme he has created can’t be turned off in an instant. That’s the way the Rams play, the way they practice, even the substitutes. But Smart could have yanked his starters earlier, called off the full-court press sooner. He could have gone with his subs at the start of the second half, then put the starters back in if he saw the Zips had regrouped. The Rams seemed focused and ready for the NCAAs, and for Michigan, by then.
In the second half, it seemed like a best friend deserved better.