HOUSTON — The thing about Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart, they still think they're players.
"Oh, yeah," Matt Howard, Butler's star center, said Thursday. "Coach Stevens is always wanting to have shooting contests in practice and stuff like that."
"Coach Smart thinks he can still play; he'll get out there and scrimmage with us," said Virginia Commonwealth guard Joey Rodriguez. "He'll be saying he can do this and he can do that. Now we can say, 'You played at Kenyon College. We're in the Final Four.'"
And so they are, the 34-year-old Stevens guiding Butler and the 33-year-old Smart (who turns 34 next Friday) guiding VCU, and Saturday at 6:09 p.m. the two young hotshots of college basketball will square off in the national semifinals.
Never miss a local story.
It's the second straight trip for Stevens, but other than the Butler coach's one-up in Final Four experience, the two have much more in common than just their age.
Stevens was an honors student at DePauw, a small private college in Indiana. He worked his way up the coaching ladder at Butler by being loyal, hard-working and incredibly intelligent.
Smart graduated magna cum laude at Kenyon, a small private college in Ohio. He worked his way up the coaching ladder at several spots by being loyal, hard-working and incredibly intelligent.
"He's just really smart," said VCU's Brandon Burgess. "Coach Smart."
As for Stevens, "His mind," Howard said, "is always working."
On the court, however, their personalities could not be much different.
At halftime of the Southwest Region finals, with VCU leading Kansas by 14, Smart was in the middle of his halftime speech when a ball rolled loose (perhaps on purpose) on the floor. Smart immediately dived on it.
"I was like, what are you doing?" Rodriguez said. "But he was talking about how he knew Kansas was going to make a run, and what we would have to do to stop it."
Smart is the same way on the sideline, hopping, pacing, gesturing. His team plays the same frenetic style, one that has produced five straight victories and an unlikely spot in the Final Four as the No. 11 seed.
Stevens is nearly the exact opposite. On the sideline, with his boyish looks, Stevens is cool as a cucumber no matter the situation.
"I've never seen anyone in his position handle it any better," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun marveled Thursday.
Stevens and Smart are friends. They've known each other since Smart was an assistant coach at Akron and Stevens was an assistant at Butler. Smart then became an assistant under Oliver Purnell at Clemson and Billy Donovan at Florida before succeeding Anthony Grant at VCU.
"When he first came in the room, I was thinking who is this little guy?" laughed Burgess. "I thought it was some kind of joke."
"He's a pretty young coach who can really relate to us," Burgess said.
Stevens said, "I think we both do a lot of the same things as far as recruiting, trying to figure out a player's intangibles. He's had a tremendous run. If he wins this, I'm going to quit and be his agent."
Smart said, "Brad's program is rock-solid and as built-for-success as he his. The big thing with Brad is how clear-headed he is."
Except for the fact that both of them still think they can play.