Seeing floor allows V.J. Beachem to do more for Notre Dame basketball

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Breezing down the court with a transition dribble barely five minutes into Friday’s season opener, Notre Dame junior wing V.J. Beachem saw something fall into focus for the first time in his collegiate career.

He saw the floor. The entire floor.

In seasons past, Beachem likely would have sought out only the 3-point line as he led the break. Once he hit that arc, Beachem would pull up with a shot from distance. If it went in, great. If it didn’t, coach Mike Brey would spend the next few possessions wondering if the Irish might have gotten something better out of the opportunity.

Beachem still knew where the 3-point line was Friday as he rolled through his decision-making Rolodex. Should he launch from 3? Drive it? Just then, a third option entered the equation – sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson running hard to the hoop. Beachem chose door No. 3 and hit Colson for a layup.

“I don’t think I would have made a play like that last year or the year before.” Beachem said.

Barely a game into what could be a big 2015-16 season, Beachem proved that he’s a different player with a different mindset.

“My first two years, I was just looking to find open shots,” Beachem said. “This year, I know I can create a little more off the bounce for myself and find other guys as well. It’s not just about shooting spot-up jumpers.”

The play also proved something to Brey, who’s starting to trust Beachem more in the open court. The old Beachem likely would shot a 3. The new Beachem sees more of what’s happening around him. The game has slowed down, which has cleared his once-tunnel vision.

“That’s a big step in his development,” Brey said. “The old V.J., I’d be like, ‘Ahhhh…..what’s going to happen?’ He’d go in there (but) he didn’t see what was happening out there.

“He’s made really good decisions with the ball. He’s a better playmaker.”

That also goes for his work in the halfcourt. His first two years Beachem’s offensive marching orders were simple. He’d hover around the 3-point line, wait for the ball to be reversed and then squeeze off the first chance from 3. On Friday, he still lingered on the perimeter during possessions. Only this time once the ball came his way, he was confident enough to shot-fake and freeze his defender. He even took a few dribbles toward the rim and made the defense react. Instead of forcing something, Beachem would then swing the ball to a teammate.

That goes back to Beachem’s belief that that as he’s gotten older, the game has gotten slower. Everything’s not moving 150 miles an hour on every possession. He can better decipher defenses and determine a play or two ahead. His first two years, Beachem likely wouldn’t have found a teammate up top or in the corner because he wouldn’t have seen him. Too much traffic. Too much confusion.

Now he better sees the floor and how everything unfolds.

“I can see a lot more developing, whether it’s to find my shot, to move, to get somebody open.”

Beachem also showed improvement on the other end. With a lanky 6-foot-8 frame and wingspan over seven feet, Beachem has the ability to be a consistently good defender. His length and reach and ability to close gaps can at times smother opposing teams. But when it came time to fight through a ball screen set near him his first two years, Beachem often didn’t. Instead of busting through, Beachem would die on in it in the halfcourt, which would open scoring opportunities for his guy. Brey then would ponder putting the team’s best perimeter defender, classmate Steve Vasturia, on Beachem’s guy.

Constant work in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski – who has helped Beachem add more than 30 pounds (he’s up to 200) since he stepped on campus – has led to being a more determined defender. He’s strong enough to fight through the wall and deny his guy the ball.

Faced Friday with fighting through the ball screen, Beachem did.

“I was really confident in him,” Brey said. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, can he do this tonight?' No, he did it. 'Do I have to put Vasturia on the guy?' No, he did it.”

As a starter, as a junior, as a main guy, it’s not enough for Beachem to be a specialist.

“It’s about having the mindset of, ‘I’ve got to dodge this screen. I’ve got to stay with my guy and not let him get open and stay in good position defensively,’” Beachem said. “Defensively, I have to be locked in and really help push the other team out.”

Beachem finished Friday with six points on seven shots, but showed that he can do more if his shots aren’t necessarily coming or falling. Like the shot-fakes and creative dribble-drives. Like the work through screens. Like battling on the backboard.

Heading into the season, Brey demanded that Beachem become a better rebounder. When Colson battled foul trouble, the Irish needed someone to help on the backboard. Beachem jumped at the chance.

He finished with a career-high six rebounds.

In seasons past, Beachem often didn’t do much more than score. On Friday, he did a little more, which can definitely keep him on the floor. It was a step in the right direction for Beachem, who has a chance to further expand his game Tuesday when the No. 18 Irish (1-0) host Milwaukee (3-0).

“I want to get more than six rebounds and more than six points,” he said. “Either way, just play my game and have fun. That’s something I did Friday and want to build on it.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame junior V.J. Beachem (3) defends St. Francis (Pa.)'s Ben Millaud-Meunier (11) during the Friday's season opener.SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

• WHO: No. 18 Notre Dame (1-0) vs. Milwaukee (3-0).

• WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

• WHEN: Tuesday at 7 p.m.

• TICKETS: Plenty available.

• TV: None. The game will be streamed live at WatchND.tv., and ESPN3.

• RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

• ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

• WORTH NOTING: Akeem Springs scored 17 points with 10 rebounds and three steals as Milwaukee won its third game in as many days Sunday, 71-65, over host Santa Clara to win the Cable Car Classic in Northern California. The Panthers also beat Denver (71-58) and Lipscomb (71-65). They are 3-0 for the first time since 2011-12 … Tuesday is Milwaukee’s fourth game in five nights…. The Panthers play seven of their first eight and eight of 10 on the road. … Dating back to last season, they’ve won their last six away from home… Milwaukee returns four starters off last year’s team that finished 14-16, 9-7 and tied for fifth in the nine-team Horizon League. It won seven of nine to end the year but finished with only three road wins … Power forward Matt Tiby averaged 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds to earn second team all-league honors. … Milwaukee was picked in preseason to finish third. Tiby was a first team all-conference pick … After winning the Horizon League tournament in 2014 and participating in the NCAA tournament, Milwaukee worked last season under reduced practice sanctions and an NCAA tournament postseason ban after falling below the NCAA’s mandated APR (academic progress rate) mark. … The teams have met only once – March 20, 2003 in the first round of the NCAA tournament West Regional at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Notre Dame advanced with a 70-69 victory after the Panthers missed a point-blank layup in the closing seconds. … Notre Dame returns to action Saturday at home (2 p.m.) against Massachusetts-Lowell.

• WORTH QUOTING: “We’ve seen a little bit of it. We don’t want to get caught in that trap. We’ve learned from it and know we don’t want to be like that.”

-Notre Dame junior V.J. Beachem on the run of early-season upsets around college basketball.