The first thing Darrell Barley noticed about Dontay Caruthers was his swagger.
As a sixth-grader in Rochester, Caruthers possessed a certain confidence that came through each time he talked about basketball. It shined even more when he talked to Barley, the head coach at East High, about how he played.
Lindsey Hunter noticed that confidence, too, when he worked with Caruthers as an assistant with the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team in 2016-17. As they went through scouting reports and watched film of the MAC’s top scorers, Caruthers made a declaration.
“I can guard him!” Caruthers told Hunter, who was an NBA point guard from 1993 to 2010.
“There wasn’t a player he didn’t think he could guard,” Hunter recalled.
Caruthers’ confidence made him a marquee scorer at East. When he joined the Bulls in the fall of 2016, the UB coaching staff crafted the 6-foot-1 guard into a standout defender for the 18th-ranked Bulls (19-2, 7-1 MAC), who play at 8 p.m. Friday at Bowling Green (14-6, 6-1).
Caruthers has become one of the MAC’s top defensive players, an evolution that didn’t come quickly or easily. He spent two seasons at junior colleges in Texas and Iowa, and was sidelined by stress fractures in his left leg twice in a span of three seasons. Then, when he couldn’t immediately get playing time in his first season at UB, he realized that he either had to change or continue sitting on the bench.
"In high school, the only thing I wanted to do was score, score, score,” Caruthers said. “I never really played defense, I always got chewed out about that, too. When I came here, it was the same way, and it got me nowhere. I didn't get on the court at all. Even in practice, I wasn't on the court. But I started to realize that as I was watching college basketball, that you need defense to win games.
"Coach Hunter and Coach Bryan (Hodgson) and Coach (Nate) Oats came to me and said, ‘You're a big strong, physical guard and I think we can turn you into that guy.’ ”
Caruthers accepted the test.
'You've got to play defense'
Growing up, Caruthers had to fight for everything in basketball, whether it was playing time against any or all of his five brothers -- Brandon, Donnell, Quinton, Christopher and Shamir -- or squaring off against older players on the neighborhood courts at the local Boys and Girls Club. He says he was always one of the last players picked for teams, and was an object of torment as one of the younger players.
“We came from the projects, and it was a rough upbringing,” Caruthers’ older brother, Brandon, said. “But we played soccer growing up, and 'Tay was physical even then. That comes with being pushed around and having to push. He played Pop Warner football, too, and in high school he played volleyball, but he was always an athletic person. He has his own style, but he always wanted to be the best he could be. And he always had an aggressive attitude.”
Dontay Caruthers became one of the more prolific basketball players at East. He had back-to-back 50-point games in December 2013 as a senior, and averaged 28.2 points, six rebounds and five assists that year, en route to being named a Class A first-team all-state selection.
Still, Barley constantly reminded Caruthers to refine one absent yet necessary element of his game.
“There were some games where he could have had 60 points,” Barley said. “But sometimes, I would tell him, ‘You’ve got to play defense because I don’t want you to get into foul trouble.’ ”
Caruthers averaged 10.1 points and five assists in 30 games during his freshman season at Midland (Texas) Community College, where Hodgson was an assistant coach. Caruthers then transferred to Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. A few weeks into workouts at Indian Hills, Caruthers noticed that a nagging pain in his left leg wouldn’t go away as he continued to practice.
The diagnosis? A stress fracture that required him to sit out the entire season. Caruthers was dogged in his recovery, and as he watched Indian Hills from the bench, he noticed the necessity of defense -- much like Barley had reminded him in high school.
"Dontay realized that there’s one way to stay on the floor and help your team win, and 50 percent of the game is defense,” Indian Hills coach Hank Plona said. “He sees things before they’re going to happen and he has the ability to take a change or trap a big guy, force a steal and get the ball to his man.”
Putting in the work
Defense in basketball isn’t as quantifiable as it is in football, hockey or soccer. You can't shut out an opponent in basketball, but a defender can limit scoring opportunities against individual players, and force opposing teams to look for other scoring options who might not be as skilled or as accurate.
In the season he worked at UB, Hunter saw the tools Caruthers had to be a great defender: his heart, his athleticism, his quick feet and his desire to take on a challenge.
Hunter had Caruthers watch film of how players such as Hunter, Patrick Beverley and Tony Allen defended NBA greats such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. In fact, Hunter still sends videos to Caruthers to study.
“Dontay has a mentality where he feels like, he can stop anybody,” Hunter said.
“He was always up for the challenge, and he learned how to play angles and use his exceptional quickness to bother people and to stay on them and make them uncomfortable. That’s a talent within itself, to stay close and to stay uncomfortably close.”
But Brandon Caruthers said the passion to play defense has been ingrained in his family, and it was always there for his younger brother. It just needed some prompting.
“He’s known to be a scorer, but he comes from a family that plays defense,” said Brandon, a former point guard at SUNY-Brockport and an assistant coach at East. “I always tell him, ‘No matter what, play defense, because defense creates offense.’ ... He always had it in him but for him to show it, that’s another thing.”
“Now, to see him go out and showcase that, it’s amazing.”
Taking charge, drawing charges
Caruthers was the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, when he had 58 steals, 53 defensive rebounds and 73 assists in 32 games. His numbers dipped last season (22 steals, 49 assists, 40 defensive rebounds), as he missed 11 games because of a stress fracture in his left leg.
But as a fifth-year senior, the 23-year-old has 23 steals, 66 assists and 46 defensive rebounds and averages 22.8 minutes off the bench. He also has drawn a team-high 18 charges.
In the type of sequence that has become typical, Caruthers grabbed a defensive rebound six minutes into Tuesday's game against Ball State and ran it up the court for a basket off a fast break. Twenty-two seconds later, he drew a charge against Cardinals guard K.J. Walton that gave possession back to the Bulls.
Caruthers also led Buffalo with 21 points in an 83-59 victory, and is fifth in scoring for UB (8.3 points per game).
As the Bulls have roared through their MAC schedule, Caruthers will continue to have a dedicated assignment: Guard the best player on the other team. Force him into making mistakes.
And be confident.
“You’ve just got to go out there and play your hardest,” Caruthers said. “If you don’t go out there and play your hardest, somebody could beat you. That’s one thing I try to do every night, play way harder than everybody else.”