- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2011

CHICAGO (AP) - Shaka Smart could have been an Ivy Leaguer. He was accepted at Harvard before deciding he’d be more comfortable at a small college in Ohio. Like most of his choices, it turned out to be a wise one.

As a player at Kenyon College, he graduated magna cum laude in history and was a three-year captain who set school assists records. Then, he launched a coaching career that has really taken off.

His journey included stops at California (Pa.), Dayton, Akron, Clemson and Florida before he landed the head coaching job at Virginia Commonwealth. A year ago, his first VCU team won 27 games and captured the CBI championship.

Now, the sharply dressed Smart has guided the Rams to within one victory of the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.

And, oh yeah, at age 33, he’s become one of the most talked-about young coaches in the game. If the 11th-seeded Rams beat a talented Purdue team Sunday night, the spotlight gets even brighter.

“He’s like a best friend,” said VCU’s spark plug guard, Joey Rodriguez. “You can talk to him about anything. When you’ve got a guy like that leading the way it’s easy for us to come out here and perform and have a good time.”

Some critics said the Rams didn’t even belong in the 68-team field and they’ve answered the best way possible _ on the court. They beat Southern California in a first-round game Wednesday night at Dayton, Ohio, arrived in Chicago during the wee hours Thursday morning and then rode a barrage of 3-pointers to rout Georgetown on Friday night.

“There’s always going to be a couple teams that they scrutinize. I think it’s great for VCU. They took it. They probably had a chip on their shoulder anyway,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “They’ve proven they belong.”

Forget fatigue, the extra motivation and all of that.

The Rams just know they’ll have to play even better than they did in their first two victories to get past third-seeded Purdue, led by their stars JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore.

“First of all, the motivation, at this point, if it’s not high, there’s something wrong with you,” Smart said. “I told our guys against USC and I told them against Georgetown, these teams aren’t going to hand you the game. You’ve got to play for it.”

VCU limited Southern Cal and Georgetown to a combined 6-for-35 shooting from 3-point territory, all the while using the long-range shot at a dizzying rate.

The Rams (25-11) made 12 3-pointers in beating Georgetown 74-56, with Brandon Rozzell sinking six. The Rams are 21 for 49 from long distance in their two tournament victories, and overall this season they’ve attempted 823 3-pointers and made 299 (36.3 percent).

Defending the long-range shot and dealing with VCU’s pressure are two keys for the Boilermakers (26-7), who are seeking their third straight trip to the round of 16.

One of the top matchups should be between the 5-foot-10 Rodriguez and 5-foot-9 Purdue floor leader Lewis Jackson.

“The chip is still here,” Rodriguez said. “It’s always there for us. We had a goal before the year started to get to the Sweet 16 and this is our last one. It’s our last game to get there. Definitely motivated. And I think we can do it. We’ve just got to bring our `A’ game.”

Smart has done just that in his two years as coach, with a record of 52-20. He could be a hot property once the Rams’ season ends, whenever that may be.

No time to even give that a thought right now, though.

“You know March and April is all about the coaching carousel and all that stuff,” Smart said. “That couldn’t be further from my mind or, I hope, anyone’s mind within our program. It’s just not important right now. We’ve got a huge game tomorrow against Purdue with the opportunity to make school history and that’s basically all there is to it.”

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