The questions and comparisons have to get old for both coaches. It's almost become a rule that you cannot talk about Brad Stevens without mentioning Shaka Smart, and you cannot talk about Smart without mentioning Stevens. (If you Google "Shaka Smart Brad Stevens," you get 109,000 results, and if you Google "Brad Stevens Shaka Smart, you get 107,000 results.)
Both coaches are young—they're both 36—and both have had remarkable success immediately in their careers. Stevens has taken Butler to five NCAA tournaments, including trips to back-to-back championship games, in his six years as the head coach at the school. Smart has been to three NCAA tourneys in four years, winning at least 27 games each season, winning at least one game in each NCAA trip and becoming the first coach to ever lead a team to the Final Four that had to play in the play-in round.
And finally, both have defied what has been the logical step for any mid-major wunderkind by turning down the big boys. Most recently, both said no to UCLA.
They are college basketball's version of Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson—only if Bird played in Milwaukee and Johnson in Portland.
The fact that they are satisfied where they are almost bothers us. Why don't they cash in? It's also extremely fascinating and speaks to the control both have in their current situations and over college basketball. Both can wait for the perfect job, if there is such a thing for each coach. And there's no rush, because both are so young.
That leaves us with only one question left to answer: Both are on their way to Hall of Fame careers, but who will become the bigger legend?
Brad Stevens is like the poker player who can count cards. He knows what you're doing and when you're going to do it. His reliance on advanced statistics has been well-documented, but it's more than just numbers.
“Coach Stevens is less of a stats guy than a 'I want every piece of information guy,'” Butler grad assistant Drew Cannon told me earlier this year. Stevens hired Cannon a year ago for his knowledge of advanced stats. “If you can tell me something that I didn’t already know, I like to know about it. If stats is the way to do it, great. If scouting is the way to do it, great. If talking to some guy at lunch is the way to do it, great.”
Shaka Smart is the poker player who attacks. It doesn't matter what cards he has or how many chips are in front of him. He's going to come at you relentlessly.
VCU opened the NCAA tournament this past season against Akron. Smart spent three
years as an assistant at Akron—two of those years under current head coach Keith Dambrot. He calls Dambrot his best friend in coaching. The game against Akron turned into a blowout, and Smart kept pressing. He beat his best friend in coaching by 46.
Both Smart and Stevens are great motivators, but they do it in different ways. Smart is like a sixth defender on the sideline. He's constantly moving and shouting encouragement. He brings so much energy every moment that his players cannot help but play with that same sort of energy.
Stevens is calm on the sideline. When Roosevelt Jones stole an inbounds pass and beat Gonzaga at the buzzer on national TV this past year, Stevens did not run around the court like Jimmy V looking for someone to hug. Arms folded, he started walking toward Mark Few before Jones' shot even went in. His job was already done.
It's clear that Stevens builds his players up before the game. In this series of coaching videos from iHoops.com following the 2008 season, Stevens explains that he tries to sell his players on the fact that what some might look at as a mismatch—such as a size discrepancy in the post—is actually an advantage for his team as speed and skill can beat size.
Butler, despite the lack of great size, has ranked in the top 40 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage the last five seasons. Stevens' philosophy is to have four players box out and send his point guard after the ball, since most teams drop their point guard back.
The game is an equation and Stevens has thought of every formula to solve it.
In Butler's two straight championship runs, Stevens' team won six games by four points or less, and those scenarios are when the attention to detail is obvious. Stevens is masterful in these late-game situations because he knows the tendencies of his opponent. His players have been educated on what to do already. They know he knows what the other team is going to do. And that knowledge gives them confidence that he is going to put them in the perfect situation to succeed.
Butler center Andrew Smith told a story during the NCAA tournament (via ASAP Sports) of how committed Stevens is to knowing everything.
I think probably the best example I can give is that when we were watching Selection Sunday and we figured out we were paired up with Bucknell, we probably did about 15 minutes of media and walked into our locker room for our team meeting, and Coach came out and said, 'Well, I've already watched 20 clips of Bucknell's defense.' We all just started laughing. I don't even know where he gets that information so quickly.
It's probably overlooked how well Smart prepares his teams, because with Smart it's the system—known as "Havoc"—that is credited with winning the games.
Much like Stevens' players believe in their preparation, Smart's players have faith in Havoc.
The last two years the Rams have led the nation in opponents' turnover rate.
This past year, VCU opponents gave it away 28.5 percent of their possessions, which was the best mark according to KenPom.com since UAB forced a turnover rate of 28.8 in 2004.
Smart recruits to his system, and it's obvious that he has been able to do successfully. It's no coincidence that his best teams at creating turnovers have been the last two rosters that have been guys he recruited.
Stevens doesn't necessarily recruit a certain style of player. Smart values quickness; Stevens wants guys who will buy into a team concept and appreciates players who have at least one elite skill.
The beautiful thing about coaching is there is no perfect way to get where you want to go, and the differences between these two are a reflection of that.
Butler vs. VCU
Since the styles obviously work and the results have been similar with a slight edge to Stevens because of two trips to the Final Four, looking at the school is the next step in predicting future success.
This is where comparing the two make sense, because they're both in similar situations. Both programs experienced success before Stevens and Smart. Butler had made five NCAA trips in the 10 years before Stevens took over. VCU had been to three NCAAs in the six years before Smart. The Rams put themselves on the map by knocking off Duke in 2007, and the success of Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant led to jobs at BCS schools for both.
How VCU has been able to keep Smart is by acting like a BCS school. In late March, VCU extended his contract to 2023 and bumped his salary for the second straight year, up from $1.2 to $1.5 million.
VCU has taken another step by not only taking care of Smart financially but also bettering his resources. The facilities and luxuries that VCU has are closer to a BCS level than mid-major.
Butler has taken similar steps to keep Stevens, who is under contract through 2022. The Bulldogs play at legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse, and Stevens works for an athletic director, Barry Collier, who he trusts.
Stevens told Dan Patrick last month (video below):
One of the things that’s made it special for me is I’ve got the former head coach at Butler University, who ultimately hired me, and he believes that the way we go about it—win, lose or draw—is the right way to do it. And he believes in it, and he’s by my side, whether we win or lose.
By keeping Stevens happy, Butler has elevated itself from mid-major status. In fact, calling Butler a mid-major going forward will no longer be correct. Butler will join the new Big East this upcoming year and compete throughout the year on a national stage. The program is there because of Stevens.
VCU is a half-step behind but not far. Both VCU and Butler spent the last year in the Atlantic 10, one of the best basketball conferences outside of the power six. With Butler and VCU in the mix, the A-10 was arguably a better basketball league this past year than some of the BCS leagues.
Losing Butler, Xavier and Temple hurts the A-10, but VCU will be in a position to be the premier program in the league, and Smart, like Stevens, makes VCU a national brand.
And if the coaches were ever to leave their respective programs, whichever school they decide to move to will immediately become a national brand in the basketball landscape if it wasn't already.
The beauty of VCU and Butler in the same conference was that Smart and Stevens would get to face off every season. They could settle the "who's the better coach debate" on the court each season.
Unfortunately, Butler is now moving on, and who knows when they'll play again.
The two have split their only two meetings with Stevens winning in the Final Four in 2011, and Smart giving Stevens his worst loss as a head coach, an 84-52 blowout, this past year.
Past success helps predict future success, and the arrows for both point upward. I lean the way of Stevens because many coaches have gotten to the Final Four once; getting back with Butler the next season was was one of the most impressive accomplishments of the current era.
Stevens is also less reliant on a system, and you get the sense that he will evolve with the game. Smart's system is more gimmicky. You need the right players to make it work. In the case of Oliver Purnell, he has not been able to win his way at DePaul after taking Clemson to three straight NCAA tournaments. Smart spent two separate stints on Purnell's staff, and their styles are similar.
That doesn't mean Smart will not consistently get the players to win. His style (and his personality) shares some similarities with Rick Pitino. Pitino has been able to win consistently by evolving his style with the game. We have not had the chance yet to see how and if Smart will evolve.
Anyone in college basketball would be willing to gamble on both. That's why they are the most wanted men in the sport.
The cool thing about their rivalry—if that's what you want to call it—is that, like Bird and Magic, both men respect each other. There's an awareness that both have that they are sort of tied together.
My belief is Stevens will be regarded as the better coach in the end. But if you ask who was better—Bird or Magic—you're likely to get a split decision.
Thirty years from now, the same will likely be true for Smart and Stevens.