VCU is 2-1 against Richmond during senior Darius Theus' career.

VCU is 2-1 against Richmond during senior Darius Theus’ career.

RICHMOND, Va. – For a night, battle lines are drawn somewhere around Staples Mill Road. It’s West End versus Downtown when Richmond and VCU meet on the basketball court.

“I remember when I got the job here, several people came up to me and told me, I don’t care how you do all season, except you’ve got to beat Old Dominion and Richmond, and so I never forgot when they said that,” recalled VCU Coach Shaka Smart Tuesday.

In recent years, as both programs have risen to national prominence – VCU’s Final Four run in 2011 cemented its status, while Richmond’s Sweet 16 berth the same year did the same – so too has this long-running rivalry.

It’s always been a contentious fight, but lately, the stars have aligned to add flavor to this rivalry. In addition to each school’s NCAA tournament success, 19th-ranked VCU (16-3, 4-0 A-10) and Richmond (12-7, 2-2 A-10) are conference foes once again this season. A win is worth more than local bragging rights. It can alter the course of the Atlantic 10 Conference race.

Fans on both sides of the rivalry cast their stones annually, sometimes enough to whip players and coaches into the fervor. Smart said recently that in past years, players like Joey Rodriguez, known for his penchant for absorbing Internet chatter, and Richmond-native Brandon Rozzell enjoyed the buzz around town for games like this.

But this year’s VCU team is a little more level and predictable emotionally. Smart says this group doesn’t see this game as any more remarkable than most of the rest of the Rams’ schedule.

“Our guys have been pretty business-like the last couple of days. It’ll be interesting as we get closer to the game,” Smart said. “This is a different group than we’ve had. Joey was really big on these rivalries and Brandon and those guys would get caught up in the drama and the buzz. Our guys are just so business-like. Just, this is our next game. Richmond’s got a good team. This is what we need to do.”

Senior Troy Daniels acknowledges that the Rams will prepare for Richmond just like any other team.

“No, I don’t think anything will change for this game,” he said. “It’s another game. It’s a big game, but it’s still a business game like any other game.”

VCU’s 2010-11 season was defined by its multiple personalities – soaring heights, shocking lows. The Rams’ 72-60 loss at Richmond on Dec. 11, 2010 was one of the lowest points.

Three months later, VCU would turn college basketball on its ear on the way to the Final Four, but the team that screamed through March was not the same team that walked into the Robins Center that night.

Senior Rob Brandenberg scored 14 points in a 73-51 win over Richmond last season at the Siegel Center.

Senior Rob Brandenberg scored 14 points in a 73-51 win over Richmond last season at the Siegel Center.

Brandon Rozzell got hurt, Joey Rodriguez missed nine of 10 shots, the Rams shot 26 percent in the first half. By the under 12-minute media timeout, VCU had a total of one field goal. It only got worse from there. Richmond marched its lead to 40-17 by halftime and to a 30-point margin early in the second half before the Rams made the final margin respectable.

On Thursday, Jan. 24, VCU will return to the Robins Center for the first time since that loss to the Spiders in 2010. Although it’s been more than two years, few have forgotten the feeling.

Daniels hadn’t yet cracked the Rams’ rotation and played just two minutes that night, but he can recall the disappointment like it happened yesterday.

“I definitely do remember that,” Daniels said. “I’ll never forget that. It’s probably going to be in the back of my head playing Thursday, but we have a new team [now].”

Classmate Darius Theus scored seven points and fouled out in just 17 minutes that night. He believes the Rams played on their heels for much of that contest and the Spiders took advantage. It’s a lesson he’ll carry with him into Thursday’s game.

“You can’t go in there half-stepping,” said Theus, VCU’s leader in assists. “And that year we went in there half-stepping and we weren’t aggressive, and against Richmond, you’ve got to be aggressive all 40 minutes.”

Smart is 2-1 in his career against Richmond, but will be looking for his first win at the Robins Center, where Richmond is 10-1 this year. He hasn’t forgotten his first visit to the Spiders’ home court, and he won’t be taking Richmond lightly.

“Richmond’s at home. They want to defend their home floor,” Smart said this week. “I’ll tell you what, last time we went in there it wasn’t a very pretty experience for the Rams, so hopefully we can do better.”