V.J. Beachem ready for bigger role with Irish basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Transatlantic flights to far-away destinations have become a summer basketball staple for Notre Dame junior swingman V.J. Beachem.

For the last two Augusts, Beachem has ventured to Europe for some hoops seasoning, though his second tour carried a far different itinerary tone than the first.

In August 2014, Beachem and the Irish men’s basketball team set off for a 10-day tour of Italy. The trip was less about rebounds and shots than it was about bonding as brothers. Coming off a sour 15-17 season the previous winter that included no postseason for the first time in coach Mike Brey’s tenure, the Irish needed to feel good about themselves heading into 2014-15. They needed to get to know each other better and get to trust each other more on and off the basketball court. When it came time to compete, Beachem could have teamed with a few managers and some fans from the stands and still had a solid showing as Notre Dame won its four exhibitions by an average of 44 points.

The experience helped slingshot Notre Dame into a season that saw the Irish win 32 games, capture the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship and advance to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight for the first time in 36 seasons.

Mission accomplished.

When Beachem boarded an August flight out of Kennedy Airport as a member of the East Coast All-Stars for a trip back to Italy and a visit to France, it was all about business.

Counted on to be a key guy this season in his first as a full-time starter, Beachem put his passport to good use for the good of his game. He needed to expand a role that up until then meant camping out beyond the 3-point arc and waiting for a chance to make a difference from distance.

“There were some areas where he needed to grow and he took the steps to do that,” said East Coast All-Star head coach Guy Rancourt, now in his eighth season at Division III Lycoming (Pa.) College. “He became more of a complete player.”

Beachem’s first order was to prove he could put his lanky 6-foot-8, 200-pound frame to use around the rim. The graduation of Pat Connaughton opened a starting spot for Beachem, but it also left a massive rebounding void. Connaughton averaged a team-best 7.4 boards a game last season; Beachem grabbed 1.4. He knows he has to score, but he really has to rebound.

The first night in Italy, Beachem wanted to frame the final stats sheet for his Irish coaches back in the States after collecting a team-high 11 rebounds with his 11 points in 23 minutes.

“That was a great feeling, Beachem said. “If I can get 11 rebounds over there playing against grown men, then I need to be on the glass for our team as well.

“I’ve gotta be on the glass.”

The rest of the European trip was a struggle for Beachem and the All-Stars, but that was by design. The group finished 1-3 in its four-games-in-five-nights tour against national teams from China, Nigeria and France. In each game, the collection of college kids learned a few lessons from players far older and more experienced. Some were seasoned pros. And it showed.

Against China, Beachem had to guard Yi Jianlian, who was the sixth pick in the 2007 NBA draft and spent five seasons in the league.

“It was a handful,” Rancourt said. “He had to answer the call over there.”

It was a different kind of call that Beachem couldn’t answer that pushed him toward Rancourt’s club in the summer. Working last season as the team’s sixth man, Beachem averaged 5.9 points in 14.6 minutes a game. He had some big moments – 13 points (his career high for an ACC game) off the bench against Miami (Fla.) and a tip in at the buzzer to force overtime at North Carolina State. His 11 points that night capped a stretch where he scored double figures in four of five conference games.

But when the lights were brightest, Beachem didn’t deliver.

Confidence can be a fickle friend during the course of a college basketball season. Despite missing five games early in the year with a plantar fascia tear in his right foot, Beachem believed he had the same amount of it for North Carolina State and Miami as he did in March.

His shot felt just as good. He felt just as fine. Nothing went nearly as right.

Beachem was 2-for-5 from 3 in seven postseason games, both of those buckets in the ACC tournament. He played a combined 19 minutes – no more than seven in a game – with two points in the four NCAA contests. It eventually reached a point where the game was beyond what Beachem could offer. One quick, missed shot and it was back to the bench.

Beachem struggles even now to pinpoint why everything went south.

“I felt like every shot I took was going to go in,” he said. “It just wasn’t clicking. I just wasn’t in that rhythm.”

He has to be from the jump this season. Working alongside returning starters Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, the Fort Wayne native with one career start doesn’t have to be the guy. But as an upperclassman, he does have to be a guy.

Playing with the East Coast All-Stars during their collegiate careers helped former Irish Jack Cooley and Scott Martin enjoy solid seasons immediately after their return. It could do the same for Beachem. It has to.

“I don’t want him looking over his shoulder at me (like) he was in March. He’s starting and he’s playing,” Brey said. “I don’t want to mess around with that.

“You’re a junior now. Let’s go.”

A big step for Beachem this season will be believing in himself and trusting his skill set. It’s OK to be good, even great, something he hasn’t always been sure of.

There are times during practices when he’ll swoop in for a dunk or deny a teammate right at the rim and the frightening burst of athleticism will make him look like a young Scottie Pippen or Paul George. There are other times when he’ll run off six, seven, eight baskets from deep without a miss. He can be good. Really good. He just has to carry that mindset with him the next six months.

“I have the full support of the guys to do more than just shoot jumpers,” he said. “I can go out and play my game and be myself. I’m excited about it all.”

As is Rancourt. There will be times this season when he’ll be on a bus back to campus from a road game and he’ll fire up his phone to see how Notre Dame did that night. He may spy Beachem’s stat line, remember how well he played overseas and shoot him a quick congratulatory text with a reminder to keep working hard.

“He can be on the verge of being an impact guy,” Rancourt said. “The value for V.J. this season is going to be in the level of competition he faced in Europe.

“He’s not going to go against anyone that’s better this season.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame Head Coach Mike Brey and junior V.J. Beachem joke around during Media Day, Tuesday, October 13, 2015, in South Bend. SBT Photo/ BECKY MALEWITZ via FTP