Bye-bye quiet guy for ND's Steve Vasturia this season

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Campers scrambled for seats along the sideline as a Notre Dame men’s basketball pickup game unfolded in front of them.

Those summer night sessions at Rolfs Student Center allow the Irish to work on their games in a stress-free environment. There may be one or two good runs before the rest of the evening sees the key guys slide it into cruise control.

It looked one night in late June that junior guard Steve Vasturia was coasting through this round of work. Following a bust-out sophomore season in which he became a main guy far earlier than anyone might have expected, Vasturia did little to distinguish his game in front of the campers. He and his patented summer mullet haircut — business in the front, party in the back — were just kind of going through the motions.

Then like that, in a close contest where the winner would keep the court for another run while the loser would have to sit and watch the next game, Vasturia kicked it into a game-winning gear.

He mustered a steal. He drove it hard to the hoop — rarely in his repertoire the first two years — and finished at the rim. He offered defensive help to a teammate to force another turnover. He hit a 3-pointer. He found a teammate for a good look.

His team won. They won because the Medford, N.J., native just did what he does.

Need someone to take a big shot at the end of a close contest last season? Vasturia often found himself alone in a corner, the ball in his hands and his eyes locked on the rim. Need someone to lock down the other team’s best perimeter player? Vasturia often got the call. Wichita State guard Ron Baker appears on plenty of preseason All-American teams, but he may still be trying to figure out how Vasturia threw him in NCAA tournament jail during the Midwest Regional semifinal in Cleveland. Considered the country’s premier two-guard, Baker was hounded into a 2-of-10 shooting performance, mainly by Vasturia.

Two nights later on the floor of Quicken Loans Arena, Vasturia did plenty to keep then-No. 1 Kentucky on the ropes by making big play after big play, hitting big shot after big shot. His trail 3 off the break put the Irish up six with six minutes remaining and sent the sellout crowd into a frenzy.

“That play,” Vasturia said earlier this month during media day, “you got the feeling that this is our game.”

When the lights are the brightest, the 6-foot-5, 212-pound Vasturia seems at his best. Sometimes, he doesn’t deliver; most of the time, he does, all the while meticulously going about his business with all the outward emotion of a tax accountant filing another return.

“Growing up, that’s what you want to be — you want to make that play, make that big shot,” Vasturia said with his trademark sheepish shrug. “I’ve just never been afraid. It’s just having confidence.

“Playing on the biggest stage is something that whatever’s thrown at me now, you’ve been there, so let’s just do it.”

Vasturia’s value often lies in everything he does that doesn’t show up on the stats sheet. The casual fan will look at his numbers from a year ago — he ranked fifth on the team in scoring (10.1), fourth in rebounding (3.0) and third in assists (1.7) — and wonder if there might not be someone better suited for his spot. A basketball junkie will look at his minutes — 32.5 per game, one of four to start all 38 games last season, and everything he does when the ball isn’t in his hands, and quickly understand why coach Mike Brey targeted him long before the 32-6 dream became reality as someone that he absolutely had to have on the floor.

It’s why last year’s seniors — Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant — often argued over who would get Vasturia on their pickup team.

When ACC coaches, players and media convene Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C., for Operation Basketball (i.e. Media Day) Vasturia’s name likely won’t appear on any preseason all-league squad. But pump the league’s other 14 head coaches with truth serum, ask them the first five guys in the league they would grab for a pickup game and Vasturia’s surely surfaces. It did this summer when Brey was on the recruiting trail.

Sitting alongside ACC colleagues Tony Bennett (Virginia) and Roy Williams (North Carolina), the three had plenty of down time to discuss everything about last season, and it was no surprise what direction it went when talk turned to the Irish.

“The first guy they mentioned was Vasturia and how they appreciate how he played the game,” Brey said. “If you really know the game, you appreciate Steve Vasturia and all the many things he does.”

Most underappreicated guy in the country? Brey agrees.

That man of mystery reputation is about to change for Vasturia. No more Grant or Connaughton means that the five core returnees from last year all move up a wrung or two on the other team’s scouting report ladder. Vasturia admitted that one reason he was able to operate in his stealth-like manner last season was that there was so much attention paid to the other Irish that he was able to be sneaky good.

He’s not sneaking up on anyone this winter.

To stop the Irish a year ago, it was focus in on Nos. 22 (Grant) and 24 (Connaughton). This year, No. 32 (Vasturia) likely sits near the top of other teams’ scout.

Vasturia knows it. And likes it. He understands that this season will be different than his first two. Yes, he will still start. Yes, he will still play heavy minutes. But he’ll also be expected to create more off the dribble — not just camp in the corner — either for himself or for teammates. He’ll work through screens more to get himself open. He’s also worked during preseason as the secondary ball handler to backcourt mate Demetrius Jackson.

He’s done a lot to date, but it’s time to do more.

“It’s a great challenge,” he said. “It’s something that I’m really going to embrace. I’ve worked on my game and want to keep making those strides because people are expecting me to.”

People also are expecting to hear more from him. He’s succeeded in relative silence his first two years while the veterans have had their strongest say. But Brey has been on Vasturia about hearing his voice. In huddles. On the floor.

Vasturia deferred to Eric Atkins as a rookie. Last year, he let Connaughton do the talking. Jackson’s the strongest voice this season, but Vasturia knows he cannot stay silent. With so much good to say, he simply has to be heard. He’s thought the game so well his first two years, now it’s time to talk it.

“I’m the one with the experience; I’m the one who’s played in the big games,” he said. “It’s something that you just learn and you know being here and playing.

“I’m going to have to be the one to say the things those guys said to me.”

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Notre Dame junior Steve Vasturia was able to sneak up on opponents last season, something that won't be the case in 2015-16.SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ