There was a moment of promise, one understandably overlooked in the lost Notre Dame basketball season of 2014, but it was readily apparent for die-hard fans of the struggling Fighting Irish.
As the team's season spiraled downward toward the just the second losing campaign of the now 15-season Mike Brey era, one of the coach's freshman offered a sign of things to come.
Making his third career start at Syracuse, Steve Vasturia put forth the first double-digit outing of his career -- 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting in 37 minutes. The heavy underdog Irish played well, lost by six against the nation's No. 1 team on the road, and the college basketball world went about its collective business thereafter.
Which is what Vasturia, now a crucial cog among a top 10 team's machinery, has done from the outset.
"I don't' know if there's a better unsung hero on a Top 25 team other than Steve," said Brey. "I really identified him in front of team, because, keeping (Wake Forest's) Cody Miller-McIntyre out of the lane and never letting him get going, and hitting big shots for us, was an unbelievable night's work.
"He's the lowest maintenance guy I've had, ever, and I almost feel guilty I don't talk to him more," Brey continued. "And the reason I don't is because he does the same thing every day. He's just a beautiful basketball player that understands the game.
Lauded repeatedly by his head coach as the team's best defensive player, Vasturia emerged quickly in his second season as an ideal compliment to the talents of Grant, who at the outset of the season was merely the team's returning star from academic exile, but has since evolved into the nation's top offensive weapon, and Vasturia benefits greatly from him.
Asked "how long" it took the team's young shooters, Vasturia and classmate V.J. Beachem, to adjust to playing off of Grant, Brey offered, "For Steve? Two minutes. Because his basketball feel and basketball IQ is off flat-out off the charts for his age. He really has a great feel for the game and knew how to play off Jerian and Eric (Atkins).
"For V.J. I don't think it took very long either, because he's played that way. High school, spotting up off penetration; his AAU team before senior year. We do a lot of our shooting drills, a lot of our 3-on-zero shooting drills really reinforce that spacing, movement, footwork, finding an open area."
NO SOPHOMORE SWOONS
After missing a month due to plantar fasciitis, Beachem injected an immediate jolt of perimeter offense into an already rolling Irish attack. The Fort Wayne, Ind. product connected on a trio of three-point shots in four consecutive outings (North Carolina, Virginia, Ga. Tech, Miami) before falling into a mini-slump (6-for-27 from downtown).
A more confident Beachem emerged Tuesday against Wake Forest -- 19 minutes, 10 shots launched and 10 points on a variety of jumpers, spot-up 3s, and a driving finger roll layup.
"It was good to see him get back in a rhythm," said Brey. "We watched some film with him the other day. He had a little bit of swagger up until the last week and we wanted to get that back…We need him coming in off the bench."
Also lending an intermittent hand off the bench is fellow sophomore Austin Torres. The hometown (Granger, Ind.) product played 13 minutes against Wake Forest, scoring five points and adding six rebounds -- tied for the team-high with classmate Demetrius Jackson. Torres previously played a crucial role in wins over Georgia Tech (home and away), Purdue, and Michigan State.
"He has a great attitude. He was really involved (December and early January) and then he wasn't really involved because Bonzie (Colson) took that spot. I think he has grown so much, and he knows we need him and he has been excellent in practice. I thought tonight, given that our energy level wasn't the best all the time, that he is an energy guy, especially in this building and I thought he gave us great stuff. I like the rotation of those guys. We have a kind of three-headed monster with Zach, Bonzie, and him. You run them through there and see what happens."
Brey added that Torres and the freshmen Colson impart a rare quality, though one admittedly easier to foster on a winning team.
"One thing that I'm really proud of and is inspiring to me as teammates is how Torres and Bonzie have supported each other when they've taken each other's minutes," said Brey. "It was Torres in there, Bonzie was the first guy meeting him off the court. Then we go to Bonzie, Torres was the guy meeting Bonzie and Zach. That has been really pure. It's hard to do. Human nature says you shouldn't do that. I've really been proud of those two guys how they've handled changing roles and their minutes changing."
BEST IN CLASS
Opposing coaches and scouts doubtless rank the Irish rotation as follows:
1. Grant -- the heartbeat, the pulse, and the unquestioned facilitator of one of the nation's best offenses.
2. Connaughton -- the rock, the team's soul, and the glue that holds the undersized Irish together. And,
3. Demetrius Jackson -- defensive stopper, offensive X-Factor...
The fourth (and best) of the solid sophomore class, Jackson is a nightly constant, if not as an offensive offensive weapon, then as a tireless defensive competitor harassing opposing point guards. (No point guard foe has bested Jackson this season outside of Duke's Tyus Jones in Durham. Jackson took Round One in South Bend.)
Jackson has curiously shot better in road/neutral settings (47 of 89, 52.8 percent) than in league home games (plus Michigan State) where he's connected on just 31 of 80 shots (38.7 percent).
The shooting splits are notable in that Notre Dame has two more true road games and minimum of two, maximum of nine neutral site outings left on its 2015 ledger.
Regardless if his jumper is falling, it's clear the Irish can count on their top sophomore to produce a competitive, winning effort when the chips are down.
It appears he's in good company.