Unique year for Notre Dame's freshman class

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — One night back home in Indiana last month might best tell the type of test this season has been for the four members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball freshman class.

Coming off consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference losses to Syracuse and North Carolina, Mike Brey rattled his starting lineup for the Feb. 11 game against Clemson. Into the mix stepped swingman V.J. Beachem, whose first career start marked the ninth combination for Notre Dame, which has fielded 11 different fives this winter.

The jewel of the recruiting class, former Marian High School standout and McDonald’s All-American Demetrius Jackson was nowhere to be found that Tuesday night. Not in uniform. Not on the bench. Not even in the building as he missed the first of two games to concentrate on “academic habits.” Jackson returned to the program less than a week later but remains off-limits for interviews.

Fellow guard Steve Vasturia, who had spent the previous four games in the starting lineup, came off the bench that night and found a way to matter. Vasturia connected on two critical, 3-pointers in double overtime to help Notre Dame escape with a 68-64 victory. He’s started the last five games since Clemson.

The fourth member of the class, former Penn High School standout Austin Torres, sat in uniform at his usual spot near the end of the bench but remained ready if needed. Expected to sit out and preserve a year of eligibility to grow his game to the point where he could contribute next year, Torres has spent the season on and off call because of constant injury and illness up and down the active roster. He’s followed the five-year plan for some weeks, been ready to play for others. He has yet to appear in a game.

Heading into the regular-season finale Monday at No. 19 North Carolina (21-7; 11-4 ACC), the three freshmen who have contributed for Notre Dame (15-15; 6-11 ACC) have had moments when they’ve made plays, other times when they’ve struggled. They’ve logged major minutes in some games, minimal in others. But all have had chances far earlier than anyone anticipated last fall.

Beachem is averaging 2.5 points, and 0.8 rebounds in 8.8 minutes. He’s played in 25 games with one start. On Saturday against Pittsburgh, he hit a 3 with nine seconds remaining to force overtime. Jackson is averaging 6.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 22.8 minutes. He’s played in 28 games with 15 starts. Vasturia has played in 25 games with 10 starts. He’s averaging 4.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 21.9 minutes. He’s the lone Irish to earn at least one ACC rookie of the week honor.

Vasturia had career highs for points (15) and rebounds (6) in Saturday’s overtime loss.

“Our freshmen are playing a lot, maybe more than they should be playing in a league like this right now,” Brey said. “I’m really happy with how they’re coming along, but there are days when they’re young.”

When the Purcell Pavilion house lights dimmed that night against Clemson and Beachem was announced as a starter, it took the program a direction never before visited under Brey. Beachem’s start marked the first time under Brey, and the first time since the one season under Matt Doherty in 1999-2000, that at least three freshmen have each started at least once. That year, it was Matt Carroll, Ivan Kartelo and Jere Macura who bounced through the starting rotation.

It’s been a unique season for the freshman class under Brey. Never before had any of his previous 12 rookie classes (the Irish didn’t sign anyone in 2008-09) seen as many minutes as these three freshmen. They have combined to play 1,408 minutes.

The closest it came prior was in 2005-06 when Kyle McAlarney averaged 22.4, Luke Zeller 13.7 and Ryan Ayers 6.8. The last time Notre Dame had a four-man freshman class was in 2009-10. None were asked to do anything close to this group. Joey Brooks averaged 3.9 minutes, Mike Broghammer 5.5, Jack Cooley 5.3 and Tom Knight sat out. None of the available three started a single game.

Brey joked last month that there have been times when it seems as if he’s thrown this year’s freshmen to the conference wolves during Notre Dame’s first unforgiving foray through the ACC.

Do the freshmen feel that way?

“A little bit,” Beachem said. “But we’ve risen to the challenge and the three of us have really accepted this, accepted what’s going on and really tried to learn and grow from it.”

“I don’t think we’ve looked at it like that,” Vasturia said. “I think we were just excited about the chance. Getting on the court is like any other time when you’re playing – try and do what we’ve worked on in practice and make stuff happen.”

However it’s viewed, none of three minds having to do what they want to do – compete.

“It’s been a grind, but I’ve enjoyed it,” Beachem said. “You still have to work hard every day to try and get better. As Coach has said, as much as we’ve been through, we’re not really freshmen.

“Overall, it’s been a good year, a tough year, a learning experience.”

An experience that outside of maybe Jackson, who was expected to play and play a lot, the other two may not have been ready for as they joined a team that lost one starter and finished the previous season with 25 victories. But a series of strange circumstances – the expulsion of leading scorer Jerian Grant, the decision of Cameron Biedscheid to sit out and then subsequently transfer, Knight’s injury/illness situation, Austin Burgett’s heart scare, Jackson’s academic absence – forced Brey to lean far more heavily on Beachem and Vasturia.

Had the roster and the rotation first outlined in the fall remained intact, Brey indicated that one would have sat out the year to preserve a year of eligibility, the other would have been a bit player unlikely to ever start and rarely play.

Instead, they’ve become key guys. As recently as last month, Brey took an early step toward the program’s future and played the three together for second-half stretches.

“I was just ready for anything,” Vasturia said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to do this or do that, but I just wanted to be ready for any situation whether it’s playing a lot or playing a couple minutes here and there.

“I just wanted to get myself ready for whatever came my way.”

A whole lot has. The first time Vasturia found himself in a pressure situation, he didn’t deliver. Sent to the free throw line for a one-and-one with the Irish up one and 32 seconds remaining against Ohio State in the Dec. 21 game at Madison Square Garden, Vasturia’s first–ever college free throw bounced off in a game the Irish lost by three. But he never let it deter him. Put in the position to stick some big shots against Clemson, Vasturia did.

“I’m not going to say that we were expecting (to play a lot), but we got the opportunity and we’re just trying to make the most of it,” Vasturia said. “If we still have those opportunities, just keep taking advantage of them.”

The payoff is a bright future in an otherwise forgetful present.

“Those guys have gotten a lot of experience,” Brey said. “They’re going to be very ready sophomores, maybe more ready as sophomores than we’ve had in the past.”

TNoie@SBTinfo.com 574-235-6153 Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame freshman V.J. Beachem (3) moves by Clemson's Jaron Blossomgame (5) during the Notre Dame-Clemson game on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN