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Men’s Basketball

Steve Vasturia stays steady, keys Notre Dame

| Thursday, March 26, 2015

The boyish looks and the baby-face jabs are both telling and misleading.

Irish guard Steve Vasturia hadn’t previously heard the “baby-faced assassin” nickname head coach Mike Brey debuted a few weeks ago, but it’s nothing new for the sophomore, who hears the barbs from opposing fan bases and friends alike.

“It’s pretty funny. I’m not gonna argue with it,” Vasturia says with a laugh.

Youthful? Yes.

Mature? Yes.

And it’s the way it’s always been. As a freshman playing for St. Joseph’s Prep in the rugged Philadelphia Catholic League, Vasturia was inserted into the starting lineup for an early February matchup against La Salle, the Hawks’ rival. One of Prep’s best players and one of Vasturia’s best friends was suspended for the game, and Vasturia earned his first career start. Facial composition aside, Vasturia looked the part of a veteran. In a packed La Salle gym, the rookie scored 24 points in a 47-45 loss.

Toward the end of Vasturia’s illustrious high-school career, Vasturia and his parents, John and Kathleen, arrived at Notre Dame for a recruiting visit. Brey tabbed guard/forward Pat Connaughton to host the four-star prospect.

Before any visit, Connaughton typically would ask Brey for the honest truth about the recruit.

Do we want this kid?

What’s he like?

“Coach was very honest with me,” Connaughton said. “He said he’s a very tough kid. He really knows how to play. So when he came in and played pickup with us, you could see it.”

Connaughton carted Vasturia around and showed him campus. Vasturia pledged to the Irish in October of his junior year.

“Steve’s got a mature feel for the game, and he plays older than he actually is,” Brey said on signing day roughly a year later, in Nov. 2012. “He’s the complete package: shoots the ball well, puts it on the floor, is a good defender and moves without the ball.”

Somewhat of an afterthought in a recruiting class that included Indiana standouts Demetrius Jackson and V.J. Beachem, it was Vasturia who earned 12 starts down the stretch in his freshman season. Despite the early impact, Vasturia didn’t garner loads of attention outside the program. Of course, he’s never really sought more attention.

He’s never been tagged with a technical foul and almost hesitates with the phrase “T’d up,” as if he’s not sure what that is.

He’s only dunked three — no, four — times in a game in his life.

“Selling myself short,” he jokes while re-counting.

Ask teammates about any behind-the-scenes moments, any expressions of anger or frustration, and there’s nothing.

Low-maintenance and humble, Vasturia was able to fly relatively under the radar this season, too. If it wasn’t senior guard Jerian Grant or Connaughton garnering the headlines with their veteran play, it was the sophomore guard Jackson and junior forward Zach Auguste with their encouraging development.

Vasturia? He doesn’t even average 10 points per game, skeptics could say. Vasturia acknowledges talk of his value but insists it doesn’t get to him.

“It’s really not a big deal, especially when your team is in the Sweet 16 and have won however many games we’ve won this season,” Vasturia said.

“The guy is unbelievable,” Brey said. “He’s one of the most underrated, unsung players in the country.”

A starter from day one this season, Vasturia has drawn increased attention in recent weeks. The 6-foot-6 wing followed a 16-point showing against Miami (Fla.) in the ACC tournament with a 14-point performance in the title game against North Carolina. One week later, Vasturia poured in a career-high 20 points to lead No. 3 seed Notre Dame in the overtime victory over No. 6 seed Butler in the round of 32.

After the game, when Vasturia checked his phone late Saturday night, he had roughly 100 text messages waiting for him, a far cry from the usual few that followed regular-season performances.

“Kids you haven’t even heard from in a while,” Vasturia said. “It’s definitely cool that they’re watching and seeing what you’ve been able to do.”

What Vasturia has done is impressive, but those inside the program insist little has changed.

“He’s the same old Steve. He’s done the same things all the time,” Connaughton said.

Vasturia said he hasn’t made any conscious changes in his game recently. Against Butler, the defense gave him more opportunities to score and attack, he said.

The recent scoring surge and accompanying publicity compare favorably to Connaughton’s early years. As a sophomore in the 2013 Big East tournament, Connaughton buried six 3-pointers in wins over both Rutgers and Marquette.

“I played a lot freshman and sophomore year, but the only time people noticed was in the Big East tournament, when I had big tournaments,” Connaughton said. “He’s been the same way. He’s been just as important to this team last year and the beginning of this year as he has been these last few months. It’s just a matter of more people are watching our team, paying attention to the guys that we have.”

Connaughton is quick to point out he and Vasturia are similar. After hosting him as a recruit, Connaughton went to bat for Vasturia as a freshman to Brey.

“I said, ‘Coach, he’s a tough kid. He’s not going to let someone beat him. And that’s what you need,’” Connaughton said. “He’s the epitome of a kid who will do anything to win basketball games.”

Connaughton and Vasturia are shooting partners, often hoisting extra shots after practices and lifts for up to an hour. They watch movies on every single road trip — to and from games — trying not to repeat any favorites and, recently, trying not to be seen watching “Frozen” in the back of the airplane.

“We actually thoroughly enjoyed it,” Connaughton said.

Kindred spirits, Connaughton says he and Vasturia are cut from the same cloth.

“I might be a little more vocal. I might actually look like I have a pulse on the floor from time to time, but he’s just as tough,” Connaughton said.

Tough. Underrated. The same words are often cycled through with Vasturia.

“He is the most all-around guy as a young guy I’ve ever had,” said Brey, wrapping up his 15th season in South Bend. “The one thing I love, I look next to his name and it says s-o-p-h. I got him back for two more years.”

Hard to believe — yet not.

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About Mike Monaco

Senior Sports Writer Mike Monaco is a senior majoring in Film, Television and Theatre with a minor in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy as well as Business Economics. The O’Neill Hall native hails from the Boston area and is an aspiring play-by-play broadcaster.

Contact Mike