By Chris Kowalczyk
Darius Theus promises me that he can be a scorer, if he needs to be. VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart agrees and even professes to in his possession a DVD of Theus scoring 42 points for I.C. Norcom High School in a district game against Booker T. Washington as a junior.
"In high school it was more, I needed to score," Theus said. "Now it's, I can score, but I need to take control of my team and be that solid point guard."
Joey Rodriguez's reputation as a point guard is well-known. The 5-10 senior set a VCU record with 17 assists earlier this season and ranks fifth in school history in that category. But on many nights, you'll find the Merritt Island, Fla. native at the shooting guard position.
This season, Theus and Rodriguez, both point guards, are finding themselves on the floor together with increasing frequency. Theus, a sophomore, began the year as Rodriguez's back-up, but now finds himself running the Rams' offense for big chunks of games. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has slid over to give VCU a unique two-point guard hybrid lineup.
While some fans may view that with reservation, Smart believes it's a pairing that gives the Rams their best chance to win on most nights. Smart and his staff are proponents of evaluation through statistical data. Plus/minus simply measures a team's scoring advantage or deficit when a certain player is on the floor. Theus, despite a modest average of about four points and three assists per game, has the best plus/minus ratio on the team.
"More specifically, the lineups with Joey and Darius in there together…on the year, I'd say we're plus 100, plus 120 on the year," Smart said.
Old-school pundits be damned. It's seemingly complicated formula that produces a simple solution. If the goal is to score more points than the opponent, and we score more points than the opponent when these two guys are on the floor, then these two guys need to play more. Eureka!
In reality, the reasons are more complex than that. The Theus-Rodriguez combo works partially because it gives the Rams a different look than some teams and because it plays to both players' strengths.
"It gives us two guys with the mindset of a point guard," Smart said. "I think one of the strengths of our team has always been the way we pass the ball, the way our guys get each other shots, our assist-to-turnover ratio. When you have the two of them in there, that's when we're at our best in those areas."
There's evidence to support Smart's claims. Through Jan. 23, Theus and Rodriguez had started seven games together. In those contests, the Rams were shooting .459 from the field. In all other games, VCU was shooting .430.
On a team with a stable of gunslingers, it's not a bad idea to have a couple of guys to supply the ammunition. For the second straight season, Rodriguez is leading the CAA in assists and has also topped the league for most of the year in assist-to-turnover ratio. Theus hasn't been far behind, posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1.
It's been a bit of a strange ride for each player to get to this point. As a freshman last season Theus struggled mightily. In his first 23 games, Theus was credited with 21 assists and 26 turnovers. But in the final 12 games, he dished out 18 assists and turned it over just 11 times. He's carried over that outstanding point guard play to this season. If Theus qualified, he would rank third in the CAA in assist-to-turnover ratio.
"This year, I'm being more coachable," Theus said. "I struggled with that last year, very hard. But this year, I put all my trust and my heart into this team and the coaching staff because I believe what they're telling me will make me a better person and a better player.
"When you first come in, you think you're still in high school and you're like, 'alright, I can do this.' But after a while, you've got to realize that college is a whole different ballgame than high school."
Rodriguez, on the other hand, may be having a case of déjà vu. A point guard in high school, Rodriguez shifted to shooting guard during his first two years at VCU because the Rams had a guy named Eric Maynor directing traffic. Last season, Rodriguez moved back to the point and enjoyed a career-year, ranking 15th in the country in assists per game (5.8) while earning an All-CAA Second Team nod. Now, he finds himself spending half, if not more, of the game at the two-guard spot again. It's a transition Rodriguez has handled in stride.
"I thought I'd go back a little bit, but I didn't think that I'd sometimes start at the two," Rodriguez said. "So, it was a little adjustment. But I didn't mind it. Whatever it takes to help the team win. I'm just glad we're winning games how we are."
Rodriguez admits the transition was easier once he knew what Theus' presence would be worth to the Rams.
"He's really talented," Rodriguez said. "This year, he's starting to show it. He's starting to work more on his game and take things more seriously. With him doing that, I think he can be a really good guard in this league."
It's an unconventional lineup that might not work for every team, but does for VCU.
"Some teams [don't like] two point guards out there because they think they're not going to be able to rebound and can't guard bigger guards, can't do this, can't do that," Rodriguez said. "We're two tough-minded kids who want to come out there and guard bigger guards and box out and do different things for this team."