When Sasha Stefanovic graduated from Crown Point in 2017, he made sure to leave his mark on the boys basketball program.
In 2015 and 2016, Stefanovic led the Bulldogs to back-to-back sectional titles for the first time in 30 years. He is also Crown Point’s all-time leading scorer — totaling 1,385 points — and averaged 20.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists during his senior campaign to help the team win its first Duneland Athletic Conference championship since 1999.
Stefanovic has continued his career at Purdue, his dream school, and is playing in his first season after redshirting his freshman year. The Boilermakers won a share of the Big Ten Title with Michigan State during the regular season and have now won 24 conference championships, which is the most in Big Ten history.
The Boilermakers are the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and will begin postseason play Friday at the United Center in Chicago. Purdue is seeking its second conference tournament title and first since 2009.
In between his classes and preparation for some of the biggest games of the year, The Times had the chance to catch up with Stefanovic about his two years at Purdue, career at Crown Point and his expectations for the Boilermakers moving forward.
Q: Even after redshirting and sitting out a full season, why do you think it was the best decision for you to go to Purdue?
A: I think it was just the right fit in terms of culture and the people around (the program). So I think overall from that standpoint it fit me perfectly. And from a basketball aspect I think I fit in very well with the kind of things we do offensively and defensively.
Q: You were still a part of the team. But what was it like not being able to compete and contribute right away as a freshman?
A: It was definitely tough not being able to do the thing you love the most, especially playing in games. But I took it as a learning experience. You have a chance to get better, and you gotta get better in the areas you struggle in. So I just tried to improve defensively, as well as some other aspects of my game, and I think it paid off tremendously, so I’m really glad I did it.
Q: You were finally able to play this year and the team won its 24th regular-season Big Ten title. What was going through your mind when the final buzzer sounded after that win against Northwestern?
A: Just joy, man. All the work we put in during the offseason, conditioning and practices, the struggles we had early in the year, losing some tight games, I think that made it all worth it. You could see how much better we’ve gotten over the year and the kind of improvements we’ve made individually and as a team, so it’s pretty awesome to get this title.
Q: Where does winning a Big Ten title rank among the other achievements you’ve had in your career?
A: This is definitely up there. Top two I would say, this and winning a silver medal at the Summer University Games last summer. It’s a pretty awesome feeling and one that I’ll never forget.
Q: How did you end up competing for Team USA?
A: The summer I came into Purdue we got chosen to represent USA in the Summer University Games in Taiwan. We finished second and won a silver medal. We lost to Lithuania in the final, and that was in 2017.
Q: When you look back on your career at Crown Point, what do you miss the most?
A: There’s a lot of things I definitely miss, the intimate feeling of playing in front of our fans and the student section every night. Our team being able to pack that gym every single night, no matter who we were playing, was a cool feeling. It was just a really exciting time to be a part of that program, and I’m really proud of what we did.
Q: If you had to pick one defining moment as a Bulldog, what would it be?
A: I would say winning sectionals back-to-back years in my sophomore and junior year. And just capping it off in the sectionals my junior year against Valpo. Those two years was pretty awesome, especially doing it with the teammates I grew up with.
Q: In the second sectional championship, you hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at the end of regulation and eventually led the Bulldogs to a 59-54 double overtime win. What did you see on that play?
A: Steve Helm (the Vikings’ senior point guard), he hit an and-1 floater. It was a tremendous shot. So they ended up going up by three, and I knew we had like 5 seconds or something like that. And I just knew I had to get a 3 up, so I took it to the middle of the floor and rose up and knocked it down. It’s something that I’ll never forget.
Q: How much fun has it been to represent the Region on a bigger stage?
A: It’s very cool. We have a lot of tremendous players that come out of the Region every single year. A lot of them are doing really big things in college basketball and beyond. So it’s kind of cool to be a part of that tradition.
Q: What is your relationship like with current senior Elias Gerodemos? It seems like you have a lot of love for him.
A: He’s a kid that tries to instill the same values that I do and the same character, just being a good person. Always being nice to people that do things for you and trying to always be respectful to others is something that I see in him that I’m really proud of. I’m very proud of the person he’s become.
Q: I watched a video on the Purdue athletics website and found our your favorite player is Derrick Rose. What was your reaction when he scored 50 points against the Utah Jazz on Halloween?
A: I was sitting in my hotel room maybe doing homework or something and then my brother texted me, "Rose got 50!" So I was just going nuts in my hotel room. I was telling everybody about it and started posting stuff about it. It was pretty awesome to see. He will forever be my favorite player.
Q: Also on the Purdue athletics website, it says that you’re "boasting the heritage of two countries.” What two countries are they and what are your ties to them?
A: It’s Serbia and Macedonia. My dad was born in Serbia and my mother, her family is from Macedonia. She was born in Gary. My whole family is from over there, so it’s kind of a cool thing to be a part of those cultures and the traditions that we have. It’s a little bit different than most. But it’s a very hardworking and prideful place. I’m very proud to be Serbian and Macedonian.
Q: Your dad, Lou Stefanovic, was inducted into the Illinois State Athletics Percy Hall of Fame in 2012 after a solid career with the Redbirds. He was also drafted into the NBA in by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1985. Did you ever feel any pressure having to live up to what he accomplished?
A: He definitely taught me a lot about hard work and how to go about being a professional even before being a professional, just acting like it and doing everything the right way and being thankful for what you have every day. But in terms of me trying to live up to his shadow, I never really had that feeling at all. I’m not really too nervous about following in his footsteps because I just saw the path that he took and the hard work that went with it. So I’m just trying to do the same thing.
Q: Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac are two of your favorite players. Why do you admire them so much?
A: Another one of my favorite players is Peja Stojakovic. And them coming from a Serbian and Yugoslavian background is something they’re very prideful of, and the careers they had in the NBA were just unbelievable. Averaging 20 points a game and being on championship teams is pretty awesome to see, so I’ve always looked up to those guys.
Q: Some people may not remember, but Petrovic was an all-time great shooter and when someone analyzes your game it's easy to recognize that you’re a marksman as well. How important do you think that skill is? And who taught you how to shoot the ball?
A: It’s a big thing that everybody needs to have within in their game. I think it adds a different dynamic than just being a slasher or facilitator. If you’re able to shoot, you’re always a threat on the floor. And as far as who taught me, that’s just repetition with me and my father. He’s constantly teaching me the mechanics and making sure I’m trying to do the exact same shot every single time.
Q: You’re playing for a four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and alongside a two-time first-team All-Big Ten guard. After being around them nearly every day for two years, what have learned from coach Matt Painter and junior Carsen Edwards?
A: I think in terms of learning from Coach Painter, it’s about fully embracing your role and always doing your job. That’s something that he always preaches. If you’re able to do those two things, you’ll be able to find time on the floor. And that’s something I’ve been trying to do, and I’m definitely still learning it. And then from Carsen, it’s just the work that he puts in every single day. You don’t score 25 every night at the drop of a hat. I think seeing him work every day before practice, after practice, getting up extra shots and doing extra reps, it shows and it pays off. That’s something I can really learn from.
Q: Purdue is ranked No. 13 in the country and will start playing in the Big Ten Tournament on Friday. How far do you think this team can go not only in the conference tournament but in the Big Dance?
A: If we just keep doing our jobs and playing together as a unit, I think anything is possible. Hopefully we can get to the Elite Eight or Final Four and win the conference tournament. We’ll see what happens.