March 20, 2013
RICHMOND — As Akron prepared for the Mid-American Conference tournament, VCU coach Shaka Smart sent the Zips a 45-second motivational video.
"It was all about how much I believed in their team and how good they could be," Smart said Tuesday.
Indeed, Smart knows Akron as well as any team other than his own. He served as an assistant coach there from 2003-06, considers Zips head coach Keith Dambrot a brother and watches them as often as possible.
Sure enough, Akron won the MAC tournament for the third time in five seasons. And come Selection Sunday, the kicker: Dambrot's Zips were matched against Smart's Rams in a South Regional game Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich.
"He could probably coach our team, and I could probably coach their team," Dambrot said during a media teleconference. "That's how much we know about each other."
Their knowledge is rooted not only in 2010 and '12 regular-season meetings, but also in near-daily conversations.
How did Dambrot adjust earlier this month when starting point guard Alex Abreu was arrested on drug charges and subsequently suspended? How has Smart encouraged insecure sixth man Briante Weber?
There are few, if any, secrets.
"He's the best person I've ever been around at reaching out to people that are down," Smart said during a news conference at the Siegel Center. "Keith, I'll never forget, just the way that he treated the people that worked in the arena at Akron — he treated them the same way he'd treat the university president.
"He was the only one, at that time at least, that would be critical of LeBron James and tell him what he thought he needed to hear. And I think LeBron over the years has really appreciated that."
Dambrot coached James for two seasons at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. He then joined the Zips staff under Dan Hipsher, who in 2003 added Smart to the staff.
"He really took me under his wing, and he didn't know me from anyone," Smart said. "My first day on the job at Akron … he took me at lunch to go work out LeBron James. So I'm standing there in a rec center gym in Akron, my first day on the job, and LeBron James pulls up in a Hummer.
"He's a senior in high school, it's like May of his senior year. Keith and I proceed to work him out for the next two months. Well, I take that back. I helped Keith. I didn't really say much the first few times because I was in awe."
A year later, Akron promoted Dambrot to head coach, and Smart remained as an assistant for two additional seasons. The Zips are 210-93 since and have won at least 22 games in each of the last eight years. They've reached seven consecutive MAC tournament finals.
Not bad for a program with one previous NCAA tournament appearance, that in 1986 under Bob Huggins, who's since guided Cincinnati and West Virginia to Final Fours.
The Zips (26-6) won 19 consecutive games from mid-December to late February and are anchored by 7-foot senior Zeke Marshall. A two-time MAC defensive player of the year, Marshall ranks fourth nationally in blocked shots (3.7 per game) and swatted six in an overtime loss to VCU last season.
"It felt like 15 blocks," Smart said. "That was one of our best wins of the year. … He's been great all year long. He's done what college basketball players are supposed to do. He's gotten better and better and better every year, and now he's at the point where, I don't know much about the NBA, but I'd be amazed if he doesn't find a way to stick at the next level. …
"We're going to need to be very aggressive and intelligent in our attack against him. I think that the mistake a lot of teams make is they get so consumed with him and going at him and attacking him and getting him in foul trouble, that it takes away from the rest of their typical game plan."
VCU's game plan starts with its trapping, full-court defense, and with freshman Carmelo Betancourt replacing Abreu, bank on Weber, Troy Daniels, Darius Theus and company swarming with a vengeance.
Unlike the Zips, who've never won an NCAA tournament game, the Rams (26-6) have considerable March pedigree after their 2011 Final Four run and 2012 conquest of Wichita State. So much that they've become a popular choice to return to the Final Four.
"Now it's kinda cool to pick a non-BCS team to advance in the tournament or to make the Final Four," Smart said, citing fellow party crashers George Mason and Butler. "Before you looked like an idiot when you said that. People are a little bit like sheep. They follow and they do what it's cool to do. So we don't put a lot of stock in that. …
"Our guys, especially our juniors and seniors, have won a lot of big games in March and been a part of some very close games, tense games, games with a lot on the line. It's very valuable. It gives you something to draw on."
Akron doesn't have that reservoir, but Smart knows the Zips will be impeccably prepared.
"For whatever reason, some coaches are lifted up as brilliant coaching minds and (others) don't get as much media attention," he said. "Keith has been phenomenal. … In terms of the meat and potatoes of coaching a basketball practice or basketball game, he's as good as anyone I've been around. … He's my best friend in coaching."
But for this week, their relationship is shelved.
"We'll be estranged," Dambrot said, "and then re-bond. … I love Shaka. That's my guy."
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