Notre Dame men’s basketball: Paths of prodigies converge again

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Their basketball paths first crossed four years ago when they were high school freshmen, when they had no idea how the future might unfold and no idea their eventual college coach was in the stands of that AAU tournament in Merrillville.

Fort Wayne native V.J. Beachem was in his first season with the Eric Gordon All-Stars. Mishawaka's Demetrius Jackson was a member of the MBA Select squad. Beachem was a lanky small forward who could shoot it with range and cover crazy ground defensively. Jackson was a cat-quick point guard who could dominate games in myriad ways.

The effort of one that day left the other with a thought.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Beachem said Wednesday during the Notre Dame men's basketball media day. “The first time I played against him I thought, 'I wouldn't mind playing in college with him.’ ”

Watching the two that day was Irish head coach Mike Brey, who would eventually sign both for a 2013 Irish recruiting class that ranked among the nation's top 25.

But the pairing would take time.

Preferring to take care of his college choice as quickly as possible, Beachem committed to Notre Dame early in his junior year at New Haven High School. He signed his national letter-of-intent 14 months later and enrolled in summer school at Notre Dame nearly two years after his verbal.

“It's just a great feeling to finally be here,” he said.

Jackson's path to Notre Dame was a little more deliberate. Beachem often dropped hints about playing together in college — the two were Indiana All-Stars as juniors and again last spring — but Jackson didn't commit until September of his senior year at Marian.

Though his AAU teammate — former Penn forward and fellow Irish freshman Austin Torres — committed to Notre Dame days after him, Jackson knew he would have at least one familiar face waiting for him on campus.

“We talked every day our senior year,” Beachem said. “We couldn't wait to get up to ND and show them what we've got.”

What they have is a friendship first formed as Indiana high school standouts. They were roommates this summer and now live separately with other students in the same dorm. Though Jackson stands 6-foot-1 and Beachem goes 6-8, they play very much similar styles.

Neither shows much outward sign of emotion. You can't tell if Jackson has 10 assists or 10 turnovers. You can't tell if Beachem hasn't missed a shot or made one. Both just play with a quiet resolve and a confidence that they'll just keep doing what they need to do to be a part of the plan.

“V.J. is a great basketball player who never forces anything,” Jackson said. “He's just smooth.”

“I don't know why we're such good friends,” Beachem said. “We just really love to win.”

Their routes to the court this winter may be as different as their respective recruiting paths to Notre Dame. Jackson is expected to see many minutes early as the third guard. He'll often be paired in the same backcourt as seniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.

He can get after the other team's guards defensively, can get to the basket with a variety of moves and can play with the polish expected of a McDonald's All-American.

But for as much as area observers want the local kid to do well (see Diggins, Skylar), Brey plans to proceed with patience. There's so much energy and explosiveness to work with, but for Jackson, it is still going to be about work.

“As much as everybody is excited about him — and I'm as excited as anybody — there are going to be days when he really looks like a freshman,” Brey said. “He's got to get better. He was a high school player last year.”

So was Beachem, who played this summer like a college upperclassmen. Be it pickup sessions or individual skill work with the coaches, there was a maturity about him and an understanding of what to do and how to do it not often found from a first-year kid.

Beachem still needs work — OK, a lot of it — in the weight room to add some definition to his stick-like 187-frame. But he could crack a crowded perimeter rotation that also includes junior Pat Connaughton and sophomore Cameron Biedscheid.

“God, he's really coming,” Brey said of Beachem. “He plays with a nice, steady, calm demeanor. He's going to make a run at getting in the game because of that.”

Ryan returns

Looking like he still could run and jump and block shots and dunk the way he did to earn first team All-Big East honors his senior season more than a decade ago, former Irish power forward Ryan Humphrey had every intention of continuing his professional basketball career this fall.

He worked out hard this summer to keep his 34-year-old body in shape. He traveled 14 hours last month from his home in Tulsa, Okla., to Argentina for training camp. But when doctors determined that Humphrey needed yet another surgery — this time on his ankle after previous procedures on his knee and leg and other ankle — Humphrey had had enough.

“It was like, 'That's it. I'm done,'“ Humphrey said Wednesday during a return to campus where he addressed the Irish following media day. “I wasn't going to have surgery just so I could play.”

Humphrey decided then and there to retire after 11 seasons that took him from the NBA to the NBDL to overseas with stops in Argentina, Dominican Republic, Spain and Venezuela. He averaged 12.4 points and 5.9 rebounds last season for Obras, a high-level team in Argentina.

One reason Humphrey returned this week was to meet with Brey and discuss his post-playing options. Humphrey has thought about getting into coaching or broadcasting.

Whatever he does, he'll do it with a Notre Dame degree, something he needed when he transferred after two years at Oklahoma.

“I chose Notre Dame for life after basketball,” he said. “It's now life after basketball.”

Humphrey remains one of Notre Dame basketball's biggest success stories. Blessed with crazy athletic ability and a motor that seemingly never stopped, he blocked 166 shots (still third in school history) in two Irish seasons. Humphrey was the classic NBA “tweener” at 6-foot-8, 220 pounds — too small to be a power forward, too big to be a small forward.

Humphrey's game was all energy and effort, and both helped him be selected 19th overall by Utah in 2002 (Notre Dame hasn't had a first-round pick since) before being traded that night to Orlando.

Playing at his usual ridiculous level in the 2002 NBA pre-draft camp at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Humphrey fell to the floor while leaping for a rebound. He landed on his head and opened a gash that required four stitches. He missed mere minutes of the scrimmage in front of scouts before returning as if nothing ever happened.

Humphrey was home in Tulsa one day recently when one of his two young children felt the scar on his head and asked how it happened.

“That,” Humphrey said he told his son while offering his trademark laugh, “helped Daddy become a first-round pick.”

Next phase

Thursday closed the preseason to the preseason if you will, for the Irish, who practiced five times since workouts officially commenced two weeks ago.

Following a weekend off — the last free time for the Irish until a three-day break at Christmas — the real work starts Monday with an early-morning practice.

The NCAA allowed teams to start earlier than ever this season. Many began the last weekend of September, though Brey kept the additional practice time to a minimum.

They didn't go every day and when they did, they rarely practiced for more than 75 minutes. A chunk of that time was devoted to skill work. Brey also made sure to keep it as loose as possible.

That changes next week. Practices will run longer — typically closer to two hours — and be more involved. Demands of the coaching staff will increase. The margin for error will decrease.

Other than the NCAA's mandatory one day off, it will be all basketball, all the time. Fall break on campus the following week allows Brey the option to work the Irish twice a day.

“I want to make sure we have fresh bodies and minds when we get into that week as well,” he said.

Notre Dame's first of two exhibition games is Oct. 28 (vs. the University of Indianapolis). That's usually time for the next phase of the season to surface.

“Right now, everybody's playing in practice,” Brey said. “But when you sit on that bench and they see the rotation, it's like, 'Oh, wow. I see the pecking order.'

“Then you're in for some meetings with guys and start to manage careers and minutes.”

Notre Dame opens the regular season Nov. 8 at home against Miami (Ohio).

Notre Dame freshman forward V.J. Beachem grabs a loose ball at midcourt during a men's basketball practice earlier this month.