Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has taken to calling sophomore guard Steve Vasturia a “baby-faced assassin” for his stealthy offensive game, and he’s Notre Dame’s best defender .
“Steve Vasturia is the most underrated, not-talked-about guy,” Brey said. “He guards the best perimeter guy, he makes every big shot and now he’s driving the ball and getting to the basket and getting fouled.”
So he’s a vital factor in the Fighting Irish’s hopes of upending the Kentucky colossus in their NCAA Tournament Elite Eight matchup Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena.
As high-voltage as Notre Dame’s offensive game is, few give the Fighting Irish, 32-5, a fighting chance against the Wildcats — 37-0 with arguably the most potent top-to-bottom talent in college basketball history.
“We are America’s team tomorrow,” Brey said. “We are carrying the flag for a lot of people, I think.”
Vasturia certainly will be toting the flag for me, anyway. But not so much for his smooth, unflappable game as that I’ll always feel connected to his father, John.
John and I were football teammates at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s — along with Joe Flacco’s pop, Steve — and those are ties that still bind most of us even if we rarely see each other now.
No doubt, though, Steve gets his basketball IQ and defensive-oriented mentality from his mother, Kathy, a Dickinson College Sports Hall of Fame player. And when we spoke before the game with Wichita State on Thursday, Kathy reminded me of the purity and preciousness of the moment for anyone involved in this.
It’s so easy to be cynical about sports these days, maybe especially for a sportswriter, with all the attached excesses and issues that can cloud the essence of it.
So it can be easy to forget the best things about it: the discipline it seers into you, the resilience it insists on, the way it helps you understand how to be part of something bigger than yourself.
But best of all is the shared adventure of slogging through it all with people who really come to feel like your brothers and sisters, the sweat and laughs and blood and exhilaration and tears of putting everything you have into every day with everyone else.
In our case at Penn, maybe that was heightened by extremes of our experience.
They included a coaching change, busting my ankle in AstroTurf as a freshman and watching two still-close friends, John Shirk and Terry Dowling, suffer through a terrible knee and neck injury, respectively, that kept them out our last season.
Moreover, Penn hadn’t won an Ivy League title since 1959 and had won all of two games in three years entering the 1982 season, my senior year and John Vasturia’s junior year.
We were both receivers, both so prided ourselves on never missing passes that we fiendishly kept track of drops all through that camp in the Poconos. I don’t remember the numbers now, but it was truly very few.
Trouble was, in my case getting to more of the passes was an issue.
When camp ended, coach Jerry Berndt (later a Mizzou offensive coordinator under Larry Smith) pulled me aside after one practice.
I’d love to be able to play you, he said, “but you’re not fast enough for your size and you’re not big enough for your speed.”
Oof. But if the words sound kind of blunt now, well, it actually was kind of him to explain. He also put it more tactfully than he might have.
Plus, this led to a nice friendship with Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, who actually wrote a story about me, the senior who never plays, for the Franklin Field Illustrated game program.
Still, it stung, and so did the part where he said, “If that bus were leaving for Dartmouth (for the opener) tomorrow, you wouldn’t be on it.”
I’m not sure how I responded, but I’m sure it betrayed a sense of defeat.
Sometime around then, coach Berndt pulled John aside, too, and told him the same thing about the bus to Dartmouth.
John’s response was a lot more nimble than mine — and telling — and went something like this: “Good thing the bus isn’t leaving tomorrow then, isn’t it, Coach?”
And that really sums up how I see Vas, a man of infectious enthusiasm we all could learn from.
Among other times, his talents and attitude converged on a day that encapsulated all this: Nov. 13, 1982, one of a handful of the best days of my life.
In front of nearly 35,000 people at Franklin Field, Penn (can’t say “we” after all these years as a sportswriter) beat Harvard 23-21 after a remarkably executed drive from its own 20 with 84 seconds left.
Then it seemed to be an agonizing end with a missed field goal as time ran out. But kicker Dave Shulman made good on a second chance after a roughing-the-kicker penalty on Harvard, and the “Miracle on 33rd Street” ended with the goalposts in the Schuylkill River.
There were more dramatic plays in the game, especially on the last drive. But it all started with John’s first catch of the season, a 9-yard touchdown reception, and that was the first and only time in my life I remember feeling like seeing something somebody else did wouldn’t have felt any better if I did it myself.
So years have passed but the thrill that comes with the memory never fades, and John and I had a great chat the other day about that and more.
He didn’t come to Cleveland since it was Kathy’s turn to travel for Steve’s games, and he was home in Medford, N.J., with their youngest son, Michael.
But I could hear a little of John, and surely Kathy, in Steve on Friday.
It resounded with his tactful confidence as question after question came suggesting that Notre Dame was only a prop in this game.
“They’re going to have to match up with us as well,” he said.
It resonated as he spoke of the unselfishness of this team, which it’s now hard to remember lost 17 games last season.
“Nobody really cares who scores because we’re getting good looks …,” he said. “Throwing the ball around the perimeter, and you make four or five passes and somebody’s got a wide-open three, whether you’re shooting the ball or making the assist, it’s just pretty cool to watch.”
It sure is.
To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com