The last time Shaka Smart suited up to coach a game at the Siegel Center, he was guiding his VCU Rams to a double-digit home victory over George Mason to conclude the 2014-15 regular season.
On Tuesday evening, in a homecoming of sorts, Smart will suit up and coach a game against the program he guided to 163 wins throughout the course of six seasons, including VCU’s first and only Final Four appearance, and do so as the coach of the Texas Longhorns team he departed from Virginia to take over. Surely, retuning to the place that provided Smart with his first head coaching opportunity and doing so on the opposite end of the court he called so many plays from means this game has to mean more, right?
As Smart said during his Monday morning press conference, his ‘Horns squaring off with what used to be his Rams won’t necessarily mean more than any other game for that reason, but it will be interesting, to say the least.
"I'm excited about every game. If you take out even the fact that some of us coached there, not just me but a lot of other guys on the staff, even if we hadn't, this would be an exciting place to go play," Smart said, noting that VCU has sold out over 100 straight games.
"There's an unbelievable passion and excitement there for basketball,” Smart added. “There's been great success there for the past 15 years-plus in basketball. I'm excited just for for our guys to experience that. Now you add in the connections that we have there, it will be just an interested experience to be on the other side on the visiting side in that arena.”
Seemingly countless coaches have sat on the same bench Smart will occupy on Tuesday evening.
Unlike the others, though, only Smart can boast being at the head of VCU’s basketball program during its most successful six-year run in program history.
Despite that fact, after brining to the Rams to the point of yearly relevance on the national scale, Smart isn’t sure what to expect when he steps on the hardwood.
Will he be applauded? Will boos rain down?
"I think there'll be some of everything; you never know," Smart said laughingly. "But that just falls under the category of things you don't control as a coach. I have a lot of appreciation for all the people that made that experience that we had there so special. Hopefully most of them remember a lot of the good times that we had together.”
Among the many good times Smart enjoyed while at VCU were the 81 home victories he and the Rams celebrated at the Siegel Center throughout his tenure. If all goes according to plan, Smart will be celebrating his 82nd win on that same hardwood on Tuesday, but this time around, aspires to enjoy that moment with his Longhorns.
Although he’s aimed to emphasize to his team to treat VCU like any other game, he’s well aware that his players want to win this one, in particular, for him.
"We've tried to emphasize the opposite of that,” Smart said. “We've tried to emphasize it's our first road game this year. It's a great opportunity. [VCU] is a team that will compete to win their conference championship. This is a game if we can go win that will be meaningful for us. So we've tried to make it more about that."
"I've heard some of the guys make some comments and they are very aware that a lot of us coached there, not just me, and that we have ties and connections there,” Smart added. “But at the end of the day, I think when the ball goes up in the air, it comes back to what goes into winning."
With Texas and VCU sitting at 5-2 and 5-3 on the season, respectively, each will aim to secure that sixth win of the season when the ball does finally go up in the air at 7:00 p.m. ET.
Smart’s return to VCU will be televised on ESPN2.