Notre Dame men’s basketball: Expanded roles emerging for young Irish

South Bend Tribune

A peek inside the Notre Dame men’s basketball locker room lounge and the players gathered to meet the media following Sunday’s overtime victory over Canisius offered a peek at what the still-evolving Irish may look like moving forward.

Seated on the black leather couch was sophomore power forward Zach Auguste, who found himself on the outside of the rotation looking in earlier this month, but who now believes this is his time to chase a starting spot.

To Auguste’s right sat freshman V.J. Beachem. A dozen games into his freshman year, the Fort Wayne native had played in seven and scored five points in 30 total minutes, often as the last scholarship player off the bench. Sunday, Beachem was the first reserve in the game less than three minutes in and responded with career highs for points (six) and minutes (27).

On a loveseat to Beachem’s right was fellow freshman Steve Vasturia. Eight days after missing the front end of a critical one-and-one free-throw situation in Madison Square Garden against No. 3 Ohio State, Vasturia delivered a big shot at a big time and later connected on two gotta-have free throws with the Irish down three. The first Irish reserve to see action in the second half, he finished with career highs for points (five) and minutes (22).

At one point during a gut-check moment of the second half — the Irish were down by one with nine minutes remaining — Auguste grabbed a defensive rebound and looked to the wing for Vasturia who threw ahead to Beachem. It’s a sequence that never did unfold in the second half of any close contest this season.

“It’s definitely way different,” senior power forward Garrick Sherman said of the new combinations and contributors. “This is the first time I’ve looked up and seen Steve and V.J. But we have all the faith in the world in those guys.

“There’s a lot of new guys stepping into new roles. It’s a confidence-builder for them. It was good to get them in there and get the chance.”

It’s a chance that coach Mike Brey first talked about everyone getting in the moments after the crushing loss to Ohio State. Knowing that leading scorer Jerian Grant would be kicked out of school for the spring semester, Brey stressed to the remaining nine available scholarship players in the room that every guy would get a look. Even the ones who hadn’t had many opportunities to date (Auguste, Beachem, Vasturia) better make sure they were ready to compete, for everything about the Irish was about to change.

“I laid it out there,” Brey said. “I needed to deliver.”

He did. All nine available Irish saw action Sunday in the first 6:45 of a first half that featured 10 different lineup combinations. Brey used seven different lineups in the second half. All nine Irish logged double figures for minutes.

“We’ve got nine happy guys because they’re all part of it,” Brey said. “It’s a nice group to coach and try and develop because the nine guys eligible know they’re going to play.

“They’ll all listen and buy in because they’ll all get their shots to do things.”

With Grant still in the mix, Auguste often found himself odd man out of the core rotation. There were games when he played and did a lot (10 points, nine rebounds in 17 minutes against Cornell) and others (Bryant, North Dakota State) when he didn’t play at all. With Grant no longer part of anything, Auguste believes he can be.

“I’m after two things, man,” Auguste said. “I’m after two things – that starting spot and the chance to help the team. It gets me going.”

Auguste responded Sunday with 12 points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes. He was active early with eight points in less than five minutes. He’s practiced better in recent days, and it’s no coincidence that the better he’s practiced, the more he’s played.

“He’s back and feeling good,” Brey said. “Him and Sherm as a tag-team there, they gave us good stuff together.”

As did Beachem and Vasturia. Beachem struggled with his shot — he was 2-of-9 from the floor, 1-of-5 from 3 — but stayed confident that he could make a play when it needed to be made. With the Irish down four and just over 12 minutes remaining, Beachem connected on a 3 to make it a one-point game. Seven minutes later, Beachem helped force a Canisius turnover that ended in an Eric Atkins layup and a 65-64 Irish lead.

“You have to stay patient,” Beachem said. “You stay with it, always look to the next play and never give up.”

Seconds after Beachem buried his 3, Vasturia delivered. With the Irish down one, he grabbed a defensive rebound and threw ahead to Atkins. Trailing in transition, Vasturia bumped Notre Dame up two with a 3. Later with the Irish down by three and 7:04 remaining, he hit two free throws. The only other time he’s been at the free throw line this season — against Ohio State — he came up short. Not Sunday.

“I was just looking forward to getting back out there and knocking them down,” Vasturia said. “It’s a huge confidence booster to have the opportunity to make an impact and get a win.”

Opportunity will continue to knock for all three as well as for freshman Demetrius Jackson and sophomore Austin Burgett. Jackson played his fewest minutes — 20 — in the last 10 games. Burgett logged 11.

Brey was encouraged by both. Jackson shook off a second-half stretch on the bench necessitated as Beachem and Vasturia flourished to hit all four free-throw attempts in overtime. Burgett returned to his active and aggressive ways to grab five rebounds.

Brey has long held to a belief that to sustain consistent conference success, his program must stay old and play the veteran guys. The young guys would sit and learn and wait their turn. Notre Dame’s four upperclassmen — seniors Atkins, Sherman and Tom Knight and junior Pat Connaughton — will handle the majority of the heavy lifting, but all five underclassmen will get their chances and have their moments. Auguste, Beachem and Vasturia haven’t started a game this season, but all three were on the floor Sunday to open overtime.

Atlantic Coast Conference play arrives Saturday, and there’s no plan to eliminate any of the underclassmen from the equation.

“It’s Duke Saturday. They’re playing,” Brey said. “NC State? They’re playing. They’re all in there. This is a group now that’s going to find itself over a month and figure it out.”

The kids are ready.

“I’m excited for the opportunities to come,” Beachem said. “It’s a great feeling.”

“It’s a good chance for us,” Auguste said. “We’ve been playing together in practice on the blue (reserve) team. We felt like we were ready to step up. It does a lot for our confidence.”


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Notre Dame forward Zach Auguste (30) looks to kick the ball out from the post against Indiana earlier this season at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.