Shaka Smart and VCU are eating Jay Bilas’s lunch.
The hottest coaching commodity in NCAA men’s basketball right now is a 33-year-old named Shaka Smart. Smart’s VCU Rams are headed to the Final Four in Houston next weekend after beating Kansas 71-61 — VCU’s fifth tournament win over a higher-ranked power conference opponent (in order: USC/Pac 10; Georgetown/Big East; Purdue/Big Ten; Florida State/ACC; Kansas/Big 12). Despite the fact that I (Ben) had Kansas winning it all (against UConn) in my office bracket, I’m happy for Virginia Commonwealth, and not just in the I’m-pulling-for-the-underdog kind of way.
Shaka Smart and I went to Kenyon College and graduated the same year. I knew him in the way that everyone at Kenyon knows everyone else. (The enrollment is 1600.) Smart was a roommate and good friend of Voreblog reader Denys Lai (better known as “Yellow Thunder”), who has been a true believer from the beginning. Smart played point guard for the Lords and set the Kenyon record for career assists. He was also a pretty smart guy — as a senior he was one of twenty athletes named to the All-USA College Academic Team. (He turned down Harvard for Kenyon. He’s a real life Max Fischer.)
I’ve written before about another one of my classmates who has already gone on to receive wide acclaim — John Green, the author of the Printz Award-winning novel Looking For Alaska (and several other successful YA novels). John and I were friends at Kenyon. We took an Intro to Fiction Writing class together with P.F. Kluge. We were also fellow members of the sketch comedy troupe 1033. It was a real pleasure to read John’s first book, in no small part because I knew him. Yes, it inspired a bit of jealousy and envy, especially since I hope to publish a book myself some day. But first and foremost, I was happy for John.
I’m happy for Shaka too, and certainly less jealous, since “D-I college basketball coach” was never as high on my dream job list as “writer.” (“Career assists leader,” or even just “D-III college basketball player,” were admittedly up there on the list though.) This article from Slate by Shaka’s half-brother J.M. Tyree details his many winning qualities: his work ethic; his attention to detail; his library patronage.
This weekend, I’ll be pulling for the Rams, even though they’re up against another likable underdog: last year’s Cinderella, Butler. One of those two teams will be playing for the title on Monday night. Whichever one it is, I hope they beat the tar out of UConn/Kentucky.
One person who may begrudge Smart his success, albeit privately, is ESPN’s Jay Bilas. On Selection Sunday, Bilas called VCU’s inclusion in the tournament “indefensible,” adding that he wasn’t sure the selection committee even knew “if the ball is round.”
You might expect Bilas to be contrite now that VCU is going to the Final Four. You might be wrong.
Those arguments for selection are Selection Sunday-only arguments. They have nothing to do with performance. I’ll put it this way: The fact that VCU has played extraordinarily well and won does not make my argument wrong. Similarly, the fact that UAB lost and did not play well does not make my argument against them right.
There’s a certain logic here. Bilas is saying, on the merits, that Colorado and Virginia Tech were still better teams than VCU and UAB. He’s a man of principle, Jay, and he calls a spade a spade. That’s his argument and he’s sticking to it.
The obvious problem here is that with each VCU victory, that argument looks increasingly ridiculous, if not insane. Is Bilas really saying that he still believes VCU’s inclusion in the field is “indefensible” after the Rams became the first team ever to win five games to make the Final Four? Likewise, had VCU joined UAB in losing its play-in game, would it be plausible that Bilas would go on air and say, despite the protests of those who fear he would not take due credit for saying so, that their losses did not make his argument right?
Is basketball still played with peach baskets for hoops?
What is really annoying about Bilas and his ilk who loudly bemoan Selection Sunday slights is not that they’re wrong, but that they’re always sticking up for the big guys. No one complains when a mid-major gets left out of the field, even though the competitive gap between majors and mid-majors has been shrinking (not to mention the fact two mid-majors are going to Houston). But when the ACC and Big 12 can’t send their fifth and sixth best teams, respectively? When those teams were 9-7 and 8-8 in conference play?? For shame! James Naismith is turning in his grave!
To be fair, Bilas seems a bit prickly about the fact that someone (actually, lots of people) pointed out that he was wrong. And who likes that? No one.
To Jay’s credit, he was one of the two ESPN prognosticators to correctly pick a Final Four team. (He and Jay Williams picked UConn.) The other twelve commentators whose picks are posted on ESPN.com’s Tourney page guessed wrong on all of the Final Four teams. Dick Vitale, another vocal critic of VCU, and an altogether more unhinged and less professional fellow than Bilas, picked Louisville, which lost in the first round.
Sorry we’re all picking on you, Jay. But hey, at least some of us still get paid handsomely to be wrong.