The joy of victory will not feel as sweet tonight for either Keith Dambrot or Shaka Smart when the close friends coach their teams at Rhodes Arena.
One man will win and one won’t when the University of Akron (7-5) hosts Virginia Commonwealth University (9-3) in a men’s basketball nonleague game.
The 7 p.m. tip-off brings Smart back to the UA campus where he worked from 2003-2006 as an assistant coach for one season under Dan Hipsher and for two seasons under Dambrot.
“It will be a little bit strange, honestly,” Smart said. “In coaching, you never like to play against your friends and mentors. It’s such a competitive situation and, usually, I’m Akron’s No. 1 fan, but obviously on Thursday, we are trying to beat them.”
A lot has changed since Smart’s departure from UA.
The UA campus continues to evolve with new state-of-the-art academic and athletic buildings, and the Zips have reached the Division I NCAA Tournament twice. The landscape of college basketball also changed after “mid-majors” VCU and Butler reached the Final Four last season.
Smart, 34, guided the Rams to the national semifinals in his second year as a head coach. VCU beat USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas before falling to Butler, which was defeated by Connecticut in the title game.
“Shaka just does a terrific job of getting them to believe,” Dambrot said. “Obviously, when you go the Final Four, you have great belief in the coach, the program and the system.”
Dambrot, 53, is in his eighth season as UA’s coach and said he has no plans of annually playing against Smart. This matchup is a return game from the 2010 ESPNU BracketBusters when VCU defeated UA.
“We’re too good of friends,” Dambrot said. “We’ll never play again if we have our way. We hate it. He is a family member of mine. He is the best and most loyal. It is a terrible game for both of us. I’d be happy if we won, but I wouldn’t be happy for him. Coach [Ben] Braun is my best friend, but I think Shaka has overtaken him even. He is upset when we lose and feels bad for us. I talk to him at least four or five teams a week.
“We kind of mentor each other with questions like: What would you do if this happens? What would you do playing against this 1-3-1 zone or this 2-3 zone? We can’t do that when we go to play each other. It is difficult. If one of us wins and the other doesn’t, we’re not happy for the other guy. It is kind of a no-win situation for either one of us.”
Smart said he generally talks to Dambrot during his morning commute in Richmond.
“We talk a lot,” Smart said. “We just share ideas and I’ll bounce things off him and he’ll bounce things off me. I feel I know their team really well, but I didn’t recruit any of them. All of the guys I recruited are gone now.”
Both coaches instill in their team a confidence and swagger by passionately instructing their players.
Dambrot has an overall record of 277-150 in 14 seasons and a mark of 169-80 at UA. Smart has a 64-24 record at VCU after serving as an assistant at UA, at Clemson under Oliver Purnell from 2006-2008 and at Florida under Billy Donovan in 2008-2009.
“I have unbelievable respect for Keith and his assistants [Terry Weigand, Rick McFadden, Charles Thomas and Dan Peters],” Smart said. “It will be a challenge for us to try to win the game.”