Darius Theus was somewhere on the basketball court, probably near a foul
line. It was tough to tell because nine other VCU Rams were also out there, running through a simulated game situation. Bodies were flying all over the place. Assistant coaches, spread out across the floor
to monitor positioning and effort, didn't help matters.
There was chaos within the havoc but everybody seemed to be where they needed to be. Theus was
one of those bodies, lost among the sea of people, the chatter of players
talking to each other, and
coaches barking instructions and encouragement.
Shaka Smart was not one of those coaches in the middle of the action. Smart
confidently but calmly strode the baseline, away from the maelstrom with his back
half-turned to the action and a whistle in his mouth. He knew exactly
where Theus was.
"The team equals Darius.
Darius equals the team," Smart bellowed to nobody, straight up in the air. Everybody heard him. It's a
fun anecdote to report, this poetic math equation of leadership. However to
hear the words, the decibel level and calculated randomness and impact
on the team, is striking.
At that moment, without another word, the feel
of the gym changed. There was an intense focus. Nobody really did
anything differently, but the mood changed from get after it to GET
Smart doesn't wander when asked about the phrase.
"He's our guy," says Smart, with his voice rising on the word guy. "Darius was the first guy I ever recruited when I got here.
I always thought he had a great unselfishness and competitiveness
streak. He's a tough kid, both physically and mentally. He works–has a great work ethic–all of which we value. The
guys like and respect him. It's all those things. The guys follow him. Whenever he says 'this is what were going to do,'
the guys do it. If he says 'we're not doing it' they won't do it. True
leaders have a lot of power in that way. They can impact things strongly
in one direction."
This year's daunting direction: a step up in weight class to the A-10, and a brutally difficult nonconference appetizer.
"I’m not a fear guy," says Smart. "There are definitely challenges. Our
nonconference schedule is tough, the Bahamas is loaded, and the A10, literally,
could have 8-9 teams that could make a valid case for the NCAA tournament. It’s
a high major league. It’s a sobering challenge. But I don’t look at it from a
fear perspective. If you go into something afraid you’re half beaten. We want
to educate our guys on what goes into winning."
Theus is the fulcrum of #winning, and if last season was any indication this year's team is in good
hands. Theus more than doubled his playing time, from 15 minutes per
game backing up Joey Rodriguez to 31 mpg last year. Predictably, his raw numbers–points, rebounds,
assists–also roughly doubled.
However if you look between the
numbers you can see Theus more than embraced the challenge. He theived 30 more steals but committed three fewer fouls. Theus had 86 more
assists but only 27 more turnovers. His shooting percentages, tougher on
tired legs, increased from 35% to 45%, including 52% of his two-point
What's more, he faced the personal challenge of carrying the baton in a
point guard lineage dotted with successful pros–Walker to Maynor to
Rodriguez. It took a special level of maturity to step in and continue
the VCU tradition of great point guard play. There was the vital intangible of trust that resides
above the numbers.
Theus aced that test, too. Remember he hit
the game-winning layup to beat Akron. He drilled the three pointer to
send the William & Mary game to overtime, and then the layup to beat
the Tribe. In the last three minutes against ODU, Theus hit a three,
assisted on a
Brad Burgess three, and then had that old school three-point play to
beat the Monarchs in Norfolk. Against Northern Iowa it was seven points,
two steals, and two assists in the final five minutes that turned a
nailbiter into a nine-point win.
And on the Remove All Question Stage, Theus was named MVP of the CAA tournament, including 16 points,
five assists, and five steals
in the championship game victory over Drexel.
At that time, fellow senior Troy Daniels had this to say: "I wouldn't want anybody else with the ball in our hand.
That's our point guard. We love him. Coach Smart trusts him, so I
trust him. I know he'll find me if I'm open. And he'll find open guys
and he'll make the right play, and he did down the stretch."
Surely the floater over Garrett Stutz in the NCAA tournament is top of mind.
For his part, Theus is appreciative but stays on a leader's script.
"It means a lot, for a man like him to have
that confidence in me," says Theus when asked about the phrase. "I've got to hold other guys accountable but I've
got to be accountable to myself, lead by example. I just have to do my
job, lead my team. That's all I can do."
Smart knows the importance of Theus being comfortable in this role.
"We go as Darius goes. He needs to think of himself as an extension of
the coaching staff," says Smart. "Everything that goes through his head should be from
a team standpoint. He needs to understand he's in the middle of
everything that we do."
And while that's all fine and dandy, there are 15 Atlantic 10 teams that don't care. They want to take away Theus's strengths, throw body blows to the VCU attack. In order to mitigate that assault, Theus will need to continue to develop as a player in his senior season.
The obvious area of growth–shooting. Theus's strong drives and layups have become commonplace, but they also mask a need to develop a medium and long range shot.
In spot duty in his first two years, Theus made just 10-54 from three (18.5%). He improved (as repitition would dictate) last year, to 24.2% (15-62). If he can get to 37%–a key number–that's 23 makes.
The most important part of that: scouting. If Theus proves he can knock down threes, the opposition must gameplan for that. Here's how it plays out: VCU runs a decent amount of high screen action. If nobody is afraid of Theus shooting, they can go under the screen and play better defense. If they have to fight through the screen and come over top of it, the VCU offense becomes much more dangerous.
Smart laughs at statistical analysis of Darius Theus.
"Winning," he says of the most important stat. "There's not one stat that says he's doing his job. I think
shooting percentage is one that matters. Usually if we're getting good
shots we're going to shoot a good percentage. Darius, more than anybody,
is responsible for that."
If there's anything we've learned at VCU, from Capel to Grant to Smart, from Trani to Rao, from Sander to Teague to McLaughlin, it's that leadership matters. It's going to matter this season. I feel good about our chances.