Amid a tight struggle at No. 1 Syracuse last Monday, Steve Vasturia experienced a freshman moment, but such instances are becoming rare for the Irish guard.
Freshman guard Steve Vasturia played a career-high 37 minutes at Syracuse Feb. 3.
After Vasturia grabbed a rebound in the 61-55 loss, he looked to his side to pass to a teammate rather than opt for an Irish player streaking down the court in a fastbreak opportunity.
“That was his only young moment of the night. I love him,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said this week. “I love our young guys. They come in, they’re trying. We’ve thrown them to the wolves a bit and God bless them, they come back and keep trying.”
This season has been a trying effort for the Irish (12-12, 3-8 ACC) in a new league without leading scorer Jerian Grant. Never before has a Brey-led squad depended on three freshmen, but that has been the case this year with Vasturia, freshman forward V.J. Beachem and McDonald’s All-American guard Demetrius Jackson. When news of Grant’s dismissal broke Dec. 22, popular sentiment held that Jackson would be the one to step into the senior’s role, but Vasturia’s playing time — and production — has risen the past six weeks.
Look no further than the 64-61 loss to then-No. 3 Ohio State Dec. 21, the final game with Grant, and last week’s six-point loss at top-ranked and undefeated Syracuse. In the former, Vasturia played two minutes. Last Monday, he was on the court for 37 of 40 minutes.
“I’m not surprised because we have always felt that the overall feel for the game was at a high level,” Brey said. “He handles himself more like an older guy. You could argue at times that he’s our most solid defensive perimeter guy keeping people in front of him. He’s very good at moving his feet and defending. He understands team defense. It goes back to high school coaching, great high school coaching. He really has a high IQ and good size, is physically ready to do it.
“[When] we knew we were losing Jerian, the Steve Vasturia lightbulb went on for me like, ‘We’ve got to nurture this.’”
Vasturia earned ACC Rookie of the Week honors after drilling three three-pointers in the 79-77 win against Duke to open conference play. He scored a career-high 13 points at Syracuse and grabbed a career-high five rebounds versus North Carolina on Saturday.
“He’s kind of a quiet kid,” Brey said. “What helps him is he’s really steady. You talk to him in the heat of battle or 20 minutes before practice and the blood pressure is low and kind of steady and that’s a good thing. He’s never fazed by stuff.”
Freshman forward V.J. Beachem scored a career-high 10 points in two of the past three games.
Beachem possesses a similar approach in his game and he, too, has grown confidence in recent weeks. His 10 points — highlighted by a key three-pointer in overtime — helped the Irish scrape a tight victory against Boston College Feb. 1. His minutes decreased to four against the stout 2-3 zone at Syracuse and did not enter the first half against the Tar Heels — a mistake, Brey admitted — before scoring 10 second-half points.
“[It was] just a matter of time,” Brey said. “The kid’s a heck of a player. He’s really shot it well in practice and has practiced well. He’s had some good games for us, but in league play — and he hasn’t gotten great opportunities — he’s played a little bit nervous, too nervous. I talked to him about that [in late January] and said, ‘If you miss a shot, I’m not taking you out. Just play. We need you.’”
Beachem had been timid offensively while not attempting many shots before the confidence boost.
“I was able to get into a little bit of a rhythm, which was big for me,” Beachem said after his performance against the Eagles. “It felt great. I was struggling in the past but was trying to stay the course and continue working hard and it paid off.”
With the Irish clearly not headed to the NCAA Tournament, the continued growth of Vasturia and Beachem — and, fans hope, Jackson — will help clarify expectations for the current murky 2014-15 outlook.
“We’re trying to figure out who we are for the ACC Tournament and now we have three freshmen getting more confident and they’re going to get better,” Brey said. “They’re all part of it. That’s exciting for me now as we go through the month of February.”