Irish core now includes Steve Vasturia

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Had all the pieces remained in place and the roster not imploded last winter with ineffectiveness, injury and off-court issues, then-freshman guard Steve Vasturia might not have played many meaningful minutes for Notre Dame's basketball team.

Instead, Vasturia was forced into the mix. He played. A lot. The more he was on the floor, the more it was clear that he seldom could sit. It reached a point late in the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule where the Irish couldn’t afford not to have Vasturia part of it. If they had any chance of getting a league win, No. 32 would have to be involved.

Vasturia often did something to contribute to the cause. He would rebound, defend the perimeter, muster a steal, get on the floor for a loose ball and - cue video from the double-overtime escape of Clemson - hit a big shot or two at a critical moment.

All this from someone who, this time last season, was under consideration for a possible five-year plan.

Rather than wait and watch, the Medford, N.J., native worked. He logged 623 minutes. He played in 27 games and made 12 starts in averaging 5.0 points and 2.6 rebounds. His minutes average – 23.1 – ranked fifth on the squad.

“It was definitely a learning experience and something I can use to my advantage this year,” he said. “Playing a lot of close games, playing on the road and stuff, it’s really going to help.”

So is Vasturia, whose game is more sure and steady than flash and fair. The average fan may not see all he can do on the floor, but his teammates do. When the Irish gathered for preseason pickup games, and seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant selected squads, a guy who likes to sport an offseason mullet haircut was almost always the top pick.

Vasturia.

He’s not the quickest player on the roster. He’s not the tallest, the most athletic or most energetic. But he could be the surest. And steadiest. When he’s involved, everything seems to run much smoother.

“I just try do some of the little things to help a team win,” he said. “I just want to win.”

Now entering his second season, Vasturia again is going to play. A lot. When coach Mike Brey talks of his team and how it needs to bounce back from last season’s 15-17 showing, talk typically starts with Connaughton and Grant. But more and more, it has become Connaughton, Grant and Vasturia.

For the Irish to be better than 6-12 in the ACC this season and to get back to postseason after missing it last year for the first time since 1999, those three have to be good. Really good. Every night.

“Definitely a different feeling, but it’s exciting,” Vasturia said of rotating into the role of a main guy. “It’s a role that can help this team.

“I’m definitely going to take it on full-steam.”

Slow, then a go

Everything changed for Vasturia when academics cost Grant the spring semester. With Grant a big part of it in November and December, Vasturia played a total of 52 minutes with five DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision). He scored double figures twice.

Without Grant, Vasturia made 12 starts, only twice played fewer than 22 minutes and logged a staggering 571. He set career-highs for just about everything – minutes (41), points (15), rebounds (six), assists (3) and steals (3) – late in league play. He looked uncertain when league play began; sure as it ended.

With all that Vasturia had to handle last season, Brey considers the kid more upperclassman than a sophomore. He’s already seen a lot. Done a lot. Learned a lot. He may not be on par from a production standpoint as veterans Connaughton and Grant, whom Brey often refers to as the program’s “rocks” but he’s a lot closer than anyone might imagine.

“We know what we’re going to get from Jerian, Steve and Pat,” Brey said. “Those are the three. Steve is just really that dependable and reliable. I think of him like those two.

“There’s a lot of things he can do.”

Specifically, defend. In previous seasons, Connaughton drew the assignment of guarding and chasing and trying to limit the other team’s best perimeter player. That assignment shifts to Vasturia, whom Brey believes is the team’s best defender in the open floor. The way he can move his feet, use his smarts and hound guys can be frustrating.

One teammate already knows.

“If there’s one guy Jerian Grant hates playing against in practice it’s Steve Vasturia,” Brey said. “He can’t get by him. He just stays in front of everybody.”

Should all the pieces remain place this time around, the Irish will feature a starting lineup of four perimeter players – Connaughton, Grant, Demetrius Jackson and Vasturia – around one post player (Zach Auguste). The worry remains over how Notre Dame will rebound out of that set, but Connaughton, at 6-foot-5, led the ACC in defensive rebounds last season. Connaughton is considered the second big in that lineup, though Vasturia is actually taller – 6-foot-6 to go with 212 pounds.

“He’s a big dude,” Brey said.

Getting so much game experience last season also highlighted areas of Vasturia’s game that needed improvement. His outside shot was way too flat to consistently find the bottom of the net. Vasturia shot 35 percent from the floor and 32.9 percent from 3, numbers that should be better this season.

He spent the offseason working to give his shot a little more lift to not make it such a line drive.

“I think he’s going to shoot it better,” Brey said.

Brey also has demanded that Vasturia be better with the ball. As a major-minutes core guy, Vasturia simply cannot afford to be so loose with it. He had too few assists (32) with too many turnovers (20) last year.

Guards in Brey’s system have to be beyond good. Vasturia vows to be. He chalked last season up to having to adjust to being in there a whole lot more than expected and playing against top-caliber athletes with quick hands and extended reach in the ACC.

“With that year under my belt, I’m more relaxed,” he said.

Notre Dame opens preseason Saturday against Division II Minnesota-Duluth (2 p.m., Purcell Pavilion) in the first of two exhibition games. Having worked against the same group since practice commenced on Oct. 3, the Irish are ready for a change of scenery.

“We’re itching to play somebody in a different jersey,” Vasturia said. “We’re ready for the opportunity.”

Everything seems to flow smoothly for Notre Dame last season when guard Steve Vasturia was on the court.SBT File Photo