PROFILE OF A CHAMPION | Stephan Van Treese: Making minutes matter
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Gorgui Dieng went out with a broken wrist, mighty Duke and Mason Plumlee were next up on the University of Louisville basketball schedule, and Stephan Van Treese was next in line at the center spot for the Cardinals.
If Van Treese, somehow, could just keep from getting dominated inside, maybe, the conventional thinking went, the Cards might have a chance.
That wasn't Van Treese's thinking. He'd played against Plumlee in high school and AAU. He knew what he was about. For Van Treese, it was a chance to raise expectations a little bit. To plant the seed of his ability in people's memories.
VT, as his teammates call him, was OK. He had eight points and a game-high eight rebounds in 21 minutes. Plumlee finished with 16 and seven. Many came away impressed. VT thought he should've done more.
It was the only game the Cardinals would lose with Dieng out of the lineup.
Two stats you may not know about Van Treese:
-- He's a career 57.8 percent shooter in Big East play.
-- His 11.7 rebounds per 40 minutes were second only to Dieng on the team in 2012-13.
He won't say it, but somebody should, and Louisville coach Rick Pitino occasionally does when he looks at the stat sheet after games: Van Treese could've probably played more.
Pitino came to the conclusion that he should be playing a bit more midway through the Big East schedule when he decided he was playing Dieng too many minutes and acknowledged that Van Treese was more than capable of logging minutes at center.
"Stephan is our best screener," Pitino said. "He keeps the ball moving, knows how to defend and is one of our better rebounders."
In short, he does just about everything well. He wasn't a scorer like Dieng or Montrezl Harrell, but he had his moments. Still getting back to 100 percent after knee surgery, his athleticism began to show itself again as the season progressed, with the occasional high-flying put-back slam, including a pair of back-to-back dunks in the NCAA Tournament opener against North Carolina A&T.
The Cards needed him in a big way against Duke in the Midwest Regional finals and against Wichita State in the national semifinals. He played 15 minutes against Duke with Dieng in foul trouble, knocking down a pair of free throws and grabbing three rebounds to give the Cardinals precious minutes in the second half.
Against Wichita State, he grabbed three rebounds in a physical game that required his physical presence, and clogged up the interior against a team that was hot offensively most of the game.
With Dieng playing probably his best game of the season, Van Treese's appearances in the national title game were brief. He entered early in the first half, grabbed an offensive rebound after about a minute of game time, then left. He came back in near the end of the first half and 25 seconds later rebounded a Wayne Blackshear three-point miss to keep alive a possession that eventually resulted in Luke Hancock's fourth straight three-pointer.
Van Treese allowed Dieng to play with more confidence, and allowed him to play with more rest. For a guy who nearly wasn't on the team, his presence was not only valuable, it was necessary.
The events that led to Van Treese's temporary departure from U of L in the summer of 2012 have been open to interpretation. Harrell signed, Van Treese's transfer was announced, and until Rakeem Buckles left the program, Van Treese was in limbo, looking for other schools but having little success.
"What I wanted for Stephan was to go to Bellarmine and play 38 minutes (a game) to get his confidence back in his game, then come back for your last year with us," Pitino said. "But get on the court and start playing because I didn't think he would play a lot with us. Then he started visiting Illinois and other places. I said that is absurd and ridiculous. I called him back and said that I have been reading all this crap, it is time to come back home. He said 'I am so relieved coach, I will be back immediately.' I just wanted what was best for him and it is funny how things turn out."
Van Treese went from a player Pitino wasn't sure he needed to one he didn't want to do without.
"Stephan is a warrior. . . ." Pitino said. "We watch Kenneth Faried tapes and his technique every day. Stephan has looked at it. Stephan wasn't a good rebounder, because he stays in his plane. But he's been watching Faried and the key to why Faried is so great is not only does he block out at the defensive end, but he watches the ball the entire time, so he knows how to chase it down and tip it to himself. We're watching and trying to get that technique and Chane (Behanan) and Stephan have been getting better at that. He gave us a big lift when we needed it."
Pitino thought Van Treese could play for a national championship at Bellarmine. Instead, he wound up playing for one at Louisville. Van Treese did not then, nor has he since, thought about giving up on himself as a Division I player worthy of significant minutes. Chances are, he's planning to start for the Cardinals during his senior season, or to make a serious run at it.
If he had hard feelings over the transfer, they never surfaced. In fact, when Pitino called him about coming back, a lot of his teammates said they'd seen him enough that it was almost as if he'd never left. He was back in his dorm room instantly.
"I knew when I was coming back that this could all happen," Van Treese said after the NCAA championship game. "It's one reason I wanted to come back so bad. We knew what we had coming back. We knew that we had that team that could do it all. Sitting on the sidelines last season I knew I could've helped us a little bit. I wanted to come back and help get it done. To get this opportunity, it's awesome."
Van Treese didn't play enough in the championship games to get many calls from the announcers. But during his second stretch, Dick Vitale on the ESPN International broadcast said of him, "He could start for a lot of teams in America.
His NCAA Tournament numbers weren't large, but the minutes he played were. After the title, he summed it up.
"I'm trying to let it sink in," he said. "It's kind of exhausting to think about all the things we've accomplished this year. This team is great. Looking back at it, the way we closed out the Big East and the run we just made, we earned the right to be called the best team. One Shining Moment, I'm so used to watching that and seeing other teams. This time, we were the last team they showed. I'm just so proud of all these guys, proud of what everybody did."
And proud to be a piece of it all, a presence of stability and energy. And, what he hopes, will be a growing presence in the season to come.
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