Darius Theus and VCU are headed back to the NCAA tournament. (Geoff Burke/US PRESSWIRE)
RICHMOND, Va. -- There's a growing fraternity of VCU point guards, guys who've gone from little-known commodities to leaders of NCAA tournament darlings: Eric Maynor, Joey Rodriguez and new pledge Darius Theus, who had the best game of his junior season -- 16 points, five assists and five steals -- in the Rams' nail-biting, bid-clinching, 59-56 win over Drexel in Monday's CAA tournament final. They worked out together on campus this offseason, Rodriguez sticking around after finishing his VCU career as a Final Four starter, and Maynor coming back from his second season with the NBA's Thunder. It was from their example that Theus learned how to lead.
On Monday morning, Theus received a text message from Maynor that said, "No shortcuts. Don't take any possessions off." Maynor had played in two CAA title games, winning both. This was Theus' third, but his first as a starter, and it was against a Dragons team that last lost on Jan. 2, and was in the midst of a 19-game winning streak. In the teams' lone meeting this season, on Jan. 8 at Drexel, Theus wasn't much of a factor, scoring four points on 1-of-6 shooting -- and even worse, on a team that leads the nation in turnovers-forced percentage, recording zero steals. He was determined to contribute this time, right from the first defensive possession.
If you play for Shaka Smart, a coach whose system is called "HAVOC" and whose success has been predicated on pressure, this is how you can best contribute: By sensing that Dragons guard Damion Lee is about to make a casual perimeter pass just 32 seconds into the game, jumping into its path, knocking it free, and going three-quarters of the court for the game's opening field goal. The Rams' first of 18 points off of 18 Drexel turnovers came on that steal by Theus, who himself is a different kind of steal.
In April 2009, just a few weeks after Smart left his post as an assistant at Florida to take the VCU job, Theus signed on as the coach's first recruit. Smart was frantically searching for a point guard, because Rodriguez had bolted campus with plans to transfer, and departed coach Anthony Grant took VCU's best backcourt recruit, Ben Eblen, with him to Alabama. "It was the spring of Darius' senior year," Smart says, "and people weren't exactly beating down his door."
Depending on which recruiting service you trust, Theus was a one- or two-star point guard prospect out of Norfolk, Va., in Old Dominion's backyard. The Monarchs were not particularly interested in him, nor were VCU fans overjoyed when he committed. In a thread entitled "Welcome to the newest Ram-Darius Theus" on the CAA Zone message board, a skeptical VCU fan with the handle "Rambunctious" wrote:
"I will reserve judgment until I see him play, but the list of teams recruiting him were not at the level of CAA teams, there is little about him to be found on the scouting sites, and he has a 1 star rating. Now I know stars don't mean crap, but this looks like a bit of a reach to me -- almost like time was running out and we needed to fill a guard spot with someone, anyone. We'll see, maybe he's a diamond in the rough."
Rambunctious wasn't alone in that assessment. One CAA coach whom Smart ran into in the summer of 2009 told him, "We were looking at trying to add [Theus] as a walk-on. He's someone that maybe will be able to help you guys by his junior year." After Theus stood on the podium at Richmond Coliseum holding the CAA tournament's MVP award on Monday night, Smart said, "I think he's ahead of schedule."
You think so? Theus was a bit player as a freshman, averaging 2.7 points and 1.1 assists in 11.9 minutes, but he served as Rodriguez's backup during last year's Final Four run, averaging 3.0 points and 2.1 assists in 15.3 minutes. This season he's averaging 8.4 points and 4.7 assists in 30.8 minutes, and peaking at the right time. In his three seasons he's recorded 145 steals, 64 of them coming in 2011-12, and five huge ones coming on Monday night. He was responsible for three other Drexel turnovers that went uncredited in the box score, which meant that 44.4 percent of VCU's turnover creation could be attributed directly to Theus. How's that for making an impact?
Last year's VCU team, which slipped into the NCAA tournament as an at-large No. 11 seed in the inaugural First Four, then pulled off five upsets and got famous for its "swag," for Smart's nationally televised postgame speeches, for raining threes on its opponents, and for pushing the tempo with its full-court defensive pressure. But those Rams were not really a great defensive team: they ranked 86th in points allowed per possession and 62nd in turnovers-forced percentage. This is the first season Smart has a defense that truly embodies "HAVOC," ranking 31st in points allowed per possession and No. 1 in turnover-forced percentage.
Smart lost four valuable seniors from that team in Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen, Brandon Rozzell and Ex Nixon, and VCU's new rotation features just one senior, Bradford Burgess, who's considered the team's "rock." But the new unit Smart assembled, with first-year starters Theus and Troy Daniels in the backcourt, relieved by athletic backups Briante Weber (the national leader in steal percentage), Rob Brandenberg and Treveon Graham, has been able to put far more defensive heat on opponents than their predecessors did. Said Smart, "They've really bought in to the pressure and the aggressive trapping that we do."
Theus serves as the defensive point-man, and his early agressivness helped put a Drexel team that wasn't used to losing in a 35-19 hole at halftime. He said he "felt a lot of faith" when he took the court on Monday -- from his teammates, that he could finally lead them, and from his mother, Vallery, whom he called for a pre-game prayer session just before he boaded the team bus. In the postgame celebration scene, he pulled her and his father (who held a sign that said "No. 10 Is My Son") out of the crowd, up toward the victory podium, where they watched Smart give Theus the game ball and say, "He was our heart all night long."
"I don't have to coach him much lately," Vallery said of her son, "because he's been doing what he do."
Theus assumed he'd hear from Maynor later in the evening. There might be some coaching, because Theus did, in fact, take a crucial possession off. VCU let Drexel creep back in the game over the final four minutes, but after Lee missed a point-blank shot with 26 seconds left and the score 55-51, the Rams had a chance to seal the championship. Graham outletted the rebound to Theus, who had a temporary brain freeze. Rather than holding the ball until he was fouled, he tried to chuck a hail-mary pass to Juvonte Reddic in hopes of getting an easy (and unnecessary) layup.
The pass was intercepted by Dragons guard Franz Massenat, who was fouled when Reddic toppled over him. With Massenat's free throws and a Chris Fouch three-pointer, Drexel cut the score to 57-56 with 15 seconds to go. All of Theus' highlights -- the steals and even the breathtaking crossover-and-layup move he embarrassed Massenat with in the first half -- were in danger of being overshadowed by that one mistake.
In order to escape, VCU needed Daniels to sink two free throws, and then force Massenat to miss a three on the final possession. Theus thanked Daniels for saving him -- and ensuring that his shortcut attempt didn't cost the Rams a return trip to the NCAA tournament. They're safely in the dance, where Theus can fulfill the last requirement of his point-guard fraternity initiation: orchestrating a March Madness upset.