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From Serbia to Salt Lake City, a basketball journey

Photo: Senior point guard Vasa Pusica (4) celebrates Northeastern’s victory in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament last week with Huskies teammate Donnell Gresham (22). Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

As the Kansas Jayhawks prepare for their opening-round NCAA Tournament game against Northeastern on Thursday at Salt Lake City, they are realizing there is no simple way to neutralize Huskies point guard Vasa Pusica.

Put a bigger man on the 6-foot-5-inch Pusica, and he’ll attack the mismatch for a drive to the basket (as he did to clinch Northeastern’s semifinal win against the College of Charleston last week in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament). Press him full-court and double-team him when he dribbles, and he’ll respond by feeding the open man (as he did for seven assists against Charleston). Give him space, and he’ll drill one demoralizing 3-pointer after another (as he did a career-best seven times in the CAA final against Hofstra University, with some of them coming several steps behind the arc).

Pusica’s ability to recognize and attack the full spectrum of defensive strategies isn’t nearly as easy as he makes it look.

His efficient leadership has been hard earned. At 18, having run out of options to further his basketball career in his native Serbia, he was forced to move overseas and spend his final year of high school in Wichita, Kansas, a little more than two hours from the campus of his upcoming NCAA opponent. Three years ago, when Pusica was seeking another new home after his coach at the University of San Diego had been fired, only one school—Northeastern—was serious about recruiting him. He committed to the Huskies on faith, before he could visit their Boston campus.

Now, at the end of a scholastic career that he never could have imagined as a teen in Belgrade, Pusica faces the odd predicament of being expected to produce an upset. His 13th-seeded Huskies are eight-point underdogs against Kansas, a defending NCAA Tournament finalist and one of the most storied men’s basketball programs in the country—and still, despite the Jayhawks’ superior pedigree, many experts are giving the Huskies a chance because of Pusica’s audacious confidence.

What they don’t realize is that his on-court arrogance was born from humility. Pusica knows better than anyone that he wasn’t expected to be here.

I learned how to work hard”

Pusica grew up playing in Belgrade, Serbia, an overachieving nation of the American game with a history of producing coaches and players who are legends in Europe. His love for basketball was furthered by watching underdog Yugoslavia (the federation in which Serbia was a member at that time) win the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis, in a field dominated by NBA stars.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Pusica changed positions from shooting guard to point guard when a new coach in Belgrade recognized his leadership potential at age 16. The move opened doors for him. He was selected to play for the Serbian under-16 and under-18 national teams. But he has never been athletically explosive, and he wasn’t yet the reliable deep shooter that he is today. And so, at 18, he reached a crossroads, as the top professional teams in Serbia weren’t offering him a contract. 

“I could have probably signed for a mediocre team to start my professional career, but I didn’t see me getting better and improving a lot that way,” he says. “But if I went over to the States, I was 100 percent sure that I can get a Division One scholarship.”

He moved to Sunrise Christian Academy, one of the top high school programs in the United States, where his teammates included four fellow Serbs who helped him adapt culturally and linguistically. The team was ranked No. 14 among high schools nationally, and Pusica earned a scholarship to San Diego.

“It was school, basketball, and sleep, because they were used to working a lot there,” Pusica says of his year abroad in Kansas. “People back home would say they can’t believe how much progress I made in my game.

“I learned how to work hard. I just saw kids coming and shooting in the gym at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., and that was something I never done before. I thought I was a hard worker. But when I came over to the States, I saw how much more work you’ve got to put in and how much more you can develop.”

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When Pusica was seeking to transfer after averaging 8.3 points and 2.5 assists as a sophomore at San Diego, Northeastern’s coaching staff studied him on video and quickly offered him a scholarship. But the Huskies were also recruiting high school players at that time; they would need an answer fast.

“I didn’t know anything about Northeastern,” Pusica says. But he could see from game videos that everything the coaches were telling him was true: They ran a sophisticated offense that could help him realize his goal of playing professionally in Europe someday.

Learning the hard way

NCAA transfer rules prevented Pusica from playing during the 2016-17 year for Northeastern. He spent the school year acclimating to the Boston campus and performing well in practice as the Huskies went 15-16.

His ascension to the starting lineup last season was a revelation. With Pusica running the Huskies, they exceeded forecasts of a sixth-place finish to earn a No. 2 seed in the CAA tournament, where they led Charleston, the de facto host team, by 17 points early in the second half. That’s when 8,000 local fans joined with actor Bill Murray, a part-time resident of Charleston, to cheer their Cougars to a frantic comeback. Pusica hit shot after shot to stave them off and finished with 30 points. But he was whistled for traveling in the final minute of regulation after picking up his dribble, which invited a double-team; then, at the end of overtime, he lost a drive off his leg out of bounds.

Pusica was devastated by his team’s failure to reach the NCAA Tournament. Those memories defined his approach to the CAA tournament last week, where the Huskies were once more matched against the Cougars in the semifinal at Charleston.

“When they were coming back last year, so many times I just kind of gave up on trying to get open—allowing people almost to deny me,” Pusica says. “So I just told myself, I’m not going to get denied this time. Nothing’s going to stop me.”

A debt repaid

The matchup with Kansas gives Northeastern a chance, slim though it is.

The fourth-seeded Jayhawks (25-9) are young and inexperienced, they shoot poorly, and they are flimsy defensively on the perimeter, which is to say that their weaknesses play to the strengths of the 13th-seeded Huskies (23-10).

Kansas has the pedigree that Northeastern lacks. The Jayhawks were picked No. 1 in the NCAA in preseason, and they retained that ranking after a 9-0 start. The subsequent loss of two of their best players resulted in their program’s worst season in 15 years. And after all of that, they are still expected to beat Northeastern.

Those expectations mean little to Pusica. Like so many of his underrated teammates, he has devoted his entire basketball life to this matchup with a major opponent on college basketball’s greatest stage. All he and the Huskies have ever wanted was the opportunity.

“I felt like I owed it to the coaching staff and to these guys,” Pusica says of their breakthrough in the conference tournament last week. “With how much freedom they gave me when I transferred here, I owed it to them to make it here.

“I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on and how big this is. But I just kind of feel like I did my job. I did what I was supposed to do.”

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