"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Friday, March 26, 2021

The Case for Shaka Smart

Yesterday the Porter Moser to Marquette narrative picked up speed, punctuated by this solid column from Matt Norlander. The columnist rightly pointed out that Marquette is a very good job, one that a career mid-major coach like Moser could naturally step into immediately. As Norlander said on Twitter, “the iron will never be hotter.”

But is buying high the right call?

After all, Shaka Smart is presumed to be available. Smart has a track record with spectacular highs, consistent results (always in the top 70 on KenPom), and evidence of coaching adaptability while maintaining a true program identity.

What is the identity of the Ramblers' program under Moser? I'll say inconsistency with a side of matador defense.

For all the attention paid to Loyola Chicago's extraordinary defense this season, note that outside of the Ramblers' two breakthrough seasons, Moser's teams turned in an average defensive efficiency rank of 138. Moser's teams have finished lower than 100 five out of the last seven years.

Marquette just fired a coach who turned in an era with an average defensive rank of 100.

Smart turns out consistently excellent defensive teams. Every one of his Longhorn teams has finished in the top 40 in national defensive efficiency, a sure sign of a coach who is able to impart a sustainable identity in one of the nation’s best conferences.

Furthermore, Smart's teams have had ten straight top 40 defenses across two teams and three conferences. He's coached four top 30 offenses over the same period.

Thank you, Mr. Pomeroy.

Meanwhile, Smart is a proven recruiter at a major program, and his association with USA Basketball speaks to his professional reputation. Smart is a national brand, so is Marquette basketball.

Smart recruits well. During his last three full years at VCU, his average class was ranked #45 nationally, which mirrors Wojciechowski's average class rank during his run at Marquette. Smart has dominated as a recruiter at Texas, and even if he did not recruit at Texas levels consistently in Milwaukee, he's sure to outstrip his own performance from VCU, and that of his predecessor.

Smart has also shown an ability to adapt. His VCU teams were all about defensive turnovers. Remember that Havoc defense that keyed the Rams' Final Four run? Those teams led the nation in defensive turnovers three straight years. At the same time, VCU's defensive eFG% averaged a rank of 7.5 while in conference play.

Instead of bringing Havoc along to Austin, he changed his coaching philosophy to focus on eFG% defense. His Texas teams were in the top-80 nationally every year in that category as he maintained top-40 defenses despite a complete change in style. Even while having defensive success, Smart hired Luke Yaklich in 2019. Yaklich, widely regarded as the best defensive assistant in the game at the time, had transformed John Beilein's defense from never reaching the top-30 in efficiency to a unit that was ranked in the top-3 every year Yaklich was there.

Smart would bring a defensive identity yes, but don't presume this is just about defense. Moser's best-ever offense at Loyola Chicago would only be the fifth-best of the Smart era, and he's willing to adapting on offense.

Smart adjusted his team's tempo dramatically, playing fast at VCU (#22 peak in 2014) to playing slower at Texas (#320 in 2019).  Smart sped it up last season (#147) and he has proven his teams can play slow or fast and still get the highest level of players to join his team and buy into his system. He adapts across the board.

Success in March has been fleeting while in Austin, but at age 43, Smart already has proven his mettle with a Final Four, an NIT title, a CBI title, this year’s Big12 conference tournament crown, and a more than a handful of NCAA bids. Recent tough luck in March will turn.

Smart's tenure in Austin leaves some Horns fans wanting, but in the end his greatest crime might simply be that he is competing against the best coaching roster of any league - Self, Huggins, Kruger, Beard, Drew, Dixon, and Weber. Yet Smart fits right in with that crew.

Want to win regularly and be in position to win in March consistently? Hire a coach who deploys effective strategies with an adaptive mindset, and turns out teams that do the most important parts of the game well, every season. Hire Shaka Smart.

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