Secret's out - Steve Vasturia a key guy for Notre Dame hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH – Secure in operating more in the college basketball shadows than the spotlight, Notre Dame sophomore guard Steve Vasturia has become too good for his own good.

It reached a point during Notre Dame’s run to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship last weekend where his game no longer was a secret.

Heading into NCAA tournament play Thursday, when No. 3 seed Notre Dame (29-5) faces No. 14 Northeastern (23-11) in a second-round Midwest Region game at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh (12 p.m. tip, CBS), Vasturia deals with his new-found popularity with little more than his customary shrug.

Nothing ever bothers him. Nothing ever gets to him. The last few days have been no different.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” said the native of Medford, N.J. “I’ve tried to stick to the same role all season, trying to impact the game any way I can.”

Long before this magical rocket ride of a regular season started, Vasturia’s role was considered critical to Notre Dame, even though many outside the program simply didn’t see it. When coach Mike Brey talked about his team last summer and what it needed to be better than last season’s 15-17 showing, he pointed to three players who were gotta-have-guys-on-the-floor-at-all-times – fifth-year senior Jerian Grant, lone team captain Pat Connaughton and Vasturia, a part-time starter last season.

In Brey's mind, Vasturia was just too valuable not to play major minutes, something he’s proven this season in myriad ways while averaging 9.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.7 minutes in 31.8 minutes (fourth-highest on the team).

“He just plays at a great pace,” said classmate Demetrius Jackson, who also has become a key piece this season. “He’s like the coolest dude. He does everything right.”

Need someone unafraid of the moment to make a big shot? Vasturia did just that Jan. 28 in the home victory over Duke when he connected on a 3-pointer from the corner – seemingly his favorite spot on the floor to shoot – to bump a one-point Irish lead to four with 22 seconds remaining. Up to that point, Vasturia had made exactly zero shots. But that one was going up, and it was going down.

Three days later at Pittsburgh, Vasturia found himself in a similar situation – corner 3 with time winding down in regulation. The shot didn’t drop in an Irish loss, but that didn’t faze Vasturia.

Earlier this month in the regular-season finale at Purcell Pavilion, Clemson sophomore Jaron Blossomgame torched Notre Dame for 13 points in the first 9:14. Brey then assigned Vasturia to guard Blossomgame. Using his size (6-foot-6) and smarts, Vasturia limited Blssomgame to nine points the final 30-plus minutes as Notre Dame tied the school record with regular-season league victory No. 14.

Anything the Irish need, Vasturia gives it everything he’s got.

“What a killer that dude is,” Brey said of Vasturia, whom he has come to refer to as his “baby-faced assassin.”

Vasturia was at his best in the ACC tournament. During warmups of the quarterfinal game against Miami (Fla.), Vasturia was approached by trainer Skip Meyer. The two had a brief exchange, before Meyer stepped aside. Connaughton then followed with a quick conversation before also exiting. Vasturia awoke that morning with flu-like symptoms and wasn’t feeling too hot as the late tip approached. There was no way he wasn’t going to play.

Vasturia scored a game-high 16 points with four assists, four rebounds and three steals in 36 minutes. He followed with nine points in 31 minutes the next night in the semifinal win over Duke. He then was really good against North Carolina. He finished with 14 points, four rebounds and two steals in 35 minutes as the Irish captured the first tournament championship in school history.

There also were three turnovers, but one of them just before half, helped underscore the way Vasturia is wired.

His errant pass was picked off by Tar Heel swingman J.P. Tokoto with 43 seconds remaining. Justin Jackson finished to slice the Notre Dame lead to two and get the pro-Carolina crowd in Greensboro Coliseum revved up.

Vasturia refused to hang his head. It was on to the next play. It’s just who he is, who he’s always been.

As Jackson dribbled the clock down toward zero near midcourt, Vasturia set up on the right wing and waited. When Jackson made his move down the lane, Vasturia got his hands and his feet and his mind ready. Jackson penetrated and sucked in the Tar Heel perimeter defense before he kicked the pass out to an open Vasturia.

Vasturia banged in a wing 3 just before the halftime horn to bump the Irish advantage to five.

“You’ve got to have special DNA to do that,” Brey said.

Vasturia’s work in Greensboro – he averaged 13.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 2.0 steals in 34.0 minutes – earned him a spot alongside Connaughton and Grant on the five-man All-Tournament team.

“It’s a pretty cool accomplishment,” Vasturia said. “I was able to make some plays on both ends of the floor. It’s a great honor. I was excited and proud of it.

“It was a fun week down there.”

Fun not because Vasturia became more of a known guy, but because of the team success.

“We won a championship and that’s the best feeling that you can get from working hard and playing together as a team,” Vasturia said. “Really, that’s bigger than the personal stuff, which is a great thing, too.”

Tourney tidbits

• An Equity in Athletics filing released Tuesday indicated that the Notre Dame men’s basketball team reported a loss of $2 million for the 2013-14 season.

Louisville led all Division schools with a profit of $24.2 million. Factors that work in favor for the Cardinals – and against the Irish – include being able to profit from signage, private suites and alcohol sales in a larger, state of the art arena.

Louisville plays in the 22,090-set KFC Yum! Center compared to 9,149-seat Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame is one of five schools (West Virginia, Oklahoma State, UC Irvine and Davidson) in this year’s NCAA tournament that reported losses for the specific season. Butler, a potential second-round opponent for Notre Dame, reported a profit of $1.

• Notre Dame practiced on campus Tuesday afternoon before hopping its 40-minute charter flight to Pittsburgh. The Irish will hold a 40-minute open practice (free to the public) Wednesday at CONSOL Energy Center at 1:30.

• Odds makers in Las Vegas have installed No. 8 Notre Dame as 40-1 odds to win the national championship. The top four teams with the best odds of cutting down nets at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis are overall top seed Kentucky (1-1), Duke (6-1), Villanova (8-1) and Wisconsin (8-1).

• Tickets to Thursday’s afternoon session at CONSOL Energy were going Tuesday on StubHub for between $58.20 and $1562. One ticket gets fans into both afternoon games. Butler, the No. 6 seed, faces No. 11 Texas in the game that follows Notre Dame and Northeastern.

• The Irish enter NCAA tournament play ranked in the nation’s Top 10 in four categories. Notre Dame is second to Gonzaga in field goal percentage (51.0), third in turnovers per game (9.4), fourth in assist/turnover ratio (1.61) and fourth in personal fouls per game (14.2).

• According to numbers provided by the Sports Business Journal, Saturday’s ACC tournament championship game between Notre Dame and North Carolina averaged 3.5 million viewers.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Sophomore guard Steve Vasturia was really good during Notre Dame's run to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament last weekend, where he was a first team all-tournament selection.AP Photo/GERRY BROOME

NCAA Tournament

Second round

WHO: No. 3 seed Notre Dame (29-5 overall, 14-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 14 Northeastern (23-11, 12-6 Colonial Athletic Association).

WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center (19,100), Pittsburgh.

WHEN: Thursday at 12:15 p.m.

TV: CBS.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.