Shaka Smart was an up and coming assistant coach when he got his first glimpse of John Beilein, and he's been following the coach ever since. Tomorrow he'll get his first chance to coach against him when his VCU team faces Michigan in the third round of the NCAA Tournament from The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Beilein called it "a good thing" for college basketball when Smart stayed at VCU following a run to the Final Four a few years ago, adding he has great respect fro the program. Smart, meanwhile, acknowledged Michigan would be one of his team's biggest challenges to date.
"Coach Beilein is someone I've looked up to for a long, long time," he said. "When I got my first opportunity at the Division I level, I was coordinator of basketball operations at University of Dayton under Oliver Purnell, and at that time Coach Beilein was at Richmond," Smart recalled. "They had just joined the Atlantic Ten. I just gained a ton of respect for him and what he does back then, and followed him over the years. I'm really impressed with the programs that he's built.
"Now here at Michigan, he's got tremendous talent and guys that make a lot of plays, so it will be a heck of a challenge for us tomorrow."
It's a battle of systems, and neither coach plans to adjust his strategy. Michigan is one of the best in the country at protecting the ball, while VCU's press forces turnovers at a ridiculous clip. The Rams have not won a game this year without forcing 15 turnovers or more (0-7) and have only lost once, to St. Louis, when forcing more (22).
"Their system is one that emphasizes spacing, but more so than that, it's about their personnel," Smart said. "They've got great guards. Trey Burke is a lot of people's pick for National Player of the Year, and I haven't seen a guard better than him. But not only do they have Trey Burke, but they've got several other guards that are very savvy, very poised with the basketball, and they're guys that don't make a lot of mistakes and are hard to speed up.
"They're not so based on specific position - this is our one, this is our two, this is our three, this is our four. They've got a lot of interchangeable guys. He's done a great job in recruiting over the years. Certainly he has some very, very recognizable names now, but he's won in previous years with some guys that, most recruiting experts would never have said were high-level players.
He's someone who has a great eye for talent and a great eye for what's going to work in his system."
Smart's been privy to some of it, too. Though Beilein has adapted greatly over the years, even Smart runs some of the action he picked up from Beilein.
"We had a guy on our staff, Mike Jones, my first two years at VCU, who worked for Coach Beilein," Smart said. "He let us in on some of the stuff on the inside that maybe people wouldn't know about if they hadn't been around him. Then I've kind of watched him from the outside. He has a unique system and a unique way of doing things that … most coaches just kind of follow each other. There's kind of a herd mentality, whatever's working for other people, they're going to do. But he's very unique. He's different.
"The way that his offense has worked over the years - there's actually a screen that we call a Michigan screen because it's a specific type of action he used way back when he was at Richmond. He used it at West Virginia, and now they're very good at it now at Michigan."
Just as VCU is good with their press. The Wolverines have seen pressure this year against Arkansas and West Virginia. The Rams, though, pose an even greater challenge.
Beilein got a close-up look at it Thursday night, sitting courtside to watch after the Wolverines beat South Dakota State.
I wanted to see it live in action," he said. "Mostly I rely on just video because we're not allowed to tape otherwise. I just wanted to see it live yesterday, and I was really impressed."
Bring TheWolverine.com to your mobile platform. Download the app for either the iPhone or Android platforms.
Follow us on Twitter: @TheWolverineMag, @JB_Wolverine, @Balas_Wolverine, @Spath_Wolverine, @AReid_Wolverine, and @TimS_Wolverine.
And share this story: