Shaka Smart returning to VCU, but on the visitors’ bench

AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 14: Head coach Shaka Smart of the Texas Longhorns gives direction to his team during the game with the New Hampshire Wildcats at the Frank Erwin Center on November 14, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — VCU coach Mike Rhoades is looking forward to seeing old friend Shaka Smart on Tuesday night, perhaps more than he is looking forward to being on opposing benches when the former VCU coach brings his long and athletic Texas Longhorns to the Seigel Center.

The matchup — and a VCU visit to Texas next season — were mandated in Smart’s contract when he left the Rams three years ago.

It’s a game, Rhoades admitted Monday, he will be happy to have in the past.

“We’re going to root for each other all the time, except for these 40 minutes,” said the former assistant under Smart for five years. “Somebody asked me how I felt and I said it’s like going to play pickup against your brother. You want to beat him, but (when) it’s over with, you’re going to hang out and you have each other’s back.”

The Rams (5-3) have a quick turnaround, having played longtime rival Old Dominion on Saturday night.

Texas (5-2), on the other hand, hasn’t played since Wednesday, so it figures to be fresh. The game will be the first true road game for the Longhorns, and Smart knows from experience they will face a raucous crowd.

“If you take out the fact some of us coached there … even if we hadn’t this would be an exciting place to go play,” Smart said. “They’ve sold out over 100 straight games. It’s an unbelievable passion and excitement there for basketball. They’ve had success there for the past 15 years plus. Now you add the connections that we have there.

“It will be an interesting experience to be on the other side of that arena.”

Smart became a household name at VCU, where he coached from 2010-2015, the last five seasons ending in NCAA Tournament berths. 2011 was the most notable as the Rams went from the First Four to the Final Four, losing to Butler in the semifinals. VCU has made the tournament every year since, the longest streak in state history.

The sellout streak, now at 105 games, started in late January of the 2011 season.

Seniors Justin Tillman and Johnny Williams are the only VCU players that played for Smart. While Rhoades expects them to have warm welcomes for Smart and coaches he took with him, he expects the crowd to be welcoming, too.

“It’s special because I know our fans will really appreciate him being back and welcome him until the ball goes up, and that’s how it should be,” Rhoades said. “It’s about the two teams. It’s not about the two coaches.”

Tillman, who averaged 3.6 points in Smart’s final season with the Rams, now leads them with a 15.5 scoring average.

“He’ll see how I’ve evolved from then to now,” Tillman said.

Smart expects a reception that will be “some of everything,” he said.

“I have a lot of appreciation for all the people who made our experience there so special. Hopefully, most of them will remember the good times we had and the games we were able to enjoy together,” he said Monday.

Rhoades and Smart spoke recently and discussed their teams, and “we talked about this is a 40-minute game and we’re going to go after it and we’re not going to ruin a friendship over this,” Rhoades said.

After all, he reasoned: “I’m not sitting here today if it wasn’t for coach Smart.”

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