Notre Dame hoops ready to take next step with tourney tests

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Time to tackle some tough stuff.

Opening the 2015-16 college basketball season at home with three relatively stress-free, feel-good games was fine for No. 17 Notre Dame (3-0), but the Irish know that for this season to go where they want it — deep into March — they’re going to have to answer adversity away from their collective comfort zones.

Who will Notre Dame be when everything’s not clicking far from home? How will the Irish handle having to go stretches without running good offense, or multiple possessions when the opposition carves them up on defense? Can they guard well enough to win a game? Overcome foul trouble? Execute in the closing seconds of a contest? Make free throws when it matters?

Some answers should surface this week beginning Thursday when Notre Dame opens quarterfinal play at the AdvoCare Invitational against Monmouth on the southern edge of Disney World. The winner advances to Friday’s semifinal against Dayton or Iowa. However the first two games unfold, Notre Dame should get a third game against yet another team — Wichita State or Xavier — that dreams NCAA tournament dreams.

It still may be early in the college basketball season, but it’s never too early for a veteran team like Notre Dame to test itself.

“We got off to a good start at home, but this will be the first chance to play away from the home gym and kind of put us in an uncomfortable situation,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “That’s how the whole season goes. You’re not going to have easy games; you’re going to play on the road. You have to be challenged.

“We have to be in a tough spot and find out where we are.”

When the AdvoCare brackets were released in early August, it was obvious what the tournament organizers (ESPN) deemed the must-see TV matchup. If everything holds form, Notre Dame would meet Wichita State for the tournament championship Sunday. It would be a rematch of the teams’ meeting last March in the Midwest Regional semifinal in Cleveland, a game the Irish won quite convincingly, 81-70.

But first up is Monmouth, a team that can score it, shoot it, pass it and cause Notre Dame a whole lot of headaches. Seeing if they have the aspirin to counter is just what the Irish need.

“These are the kind of games you want to play in — big games, different environments,” Vasturia said. “It’s a great test for us and we’re going to have to bring our best.”

Coach Mike Brey is anxious to see how this team is when the basketball lights are brighter, and they’ll be a whole lot brighter than the season’s first three games in front of somewhat sleepy crowds in South Bend. All three AdvoCare contests will be on national television, and even the casual college hoops fan this time of year will be interested to see if yet another Top 25 team is handed its first loss.

The Irish have seen all the surprising scores from around the country roll in and understand that if they’re not at their best Thursday, they’re going to find themselves working the rest of the weekend from the loser’s bracket.

Last year’s experience of playing really well away from home (where the Irish won a ridiculous 15 games to only three losses), winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and getting to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight last March is expected to pay off. The core of this Irish team did it in March; now can they do it in November?

“We have a lot of guys back from a group that really performed when the lights were bright,” Brey said. “Those guys knew how to dance when it was really high stakes.

“I’m hoping they’re really ready to do that again and they help some of the younger guys, the inexperienced guys. They drag them along and kind of show them, this is what we do when the stakes are higher.”

One of those inexperienced guys ready to be better when said stakes are higher is junior wing V.J. Beachem. The team’s sixth man last season played more like its 13th in March when the confidence in his game and his shot was, well, shot. A starter and main guy from the moment this season started, Beachem has already tied his career high for points (19) and set a career high for rebounds (eight) three games in.

His game can take another leap this weekend.

“I didn’t have that great of a March,” Beachem said. “I’m looking forward to being out there on the big stage and showing up ready to play.”

Brey has compared this weekend’s opportunity to last year’s home game against Michigan State. Back then, Notre Dame was a team in search of its identity, even unsure of how good it could be. Beating the Spartans gave the Irish a swagger for the following three-plus months.

“Winning down there (Orlando),'' Beachem said, "can give us a springboard.”

Five minutes after Saturday’s 26-point home win over Massachusetts-Lowell, Brey already had started talking about Monmouth, whom he compared to Northeastern. Notre Dame needed all 40 minutes and a late defensive stop to beat Northeastern in its NCAA tournament opener.

Monmouth is Northeastern.

“To kind of win a first-round game to get started in the tournament, it was a dog-fight,” Brey said. “We expect a dog-fight.

“You kind of find out where you are.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Junior guard Steve vasturia and No. 17 Notre Dame embrace the challenges that await at the AdvoCare Invitational. The Irish open tournament play Thanksgiving night against Monmouth.SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

AdvoCare Invitational

Quarterfinals

• WHO: No. 17 Notre Dame (3-0) vs. Monmouth (2-1).

• WHERE: HP Field House (5,000), Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

• WHEN: Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

• TV: ESPNU.

• 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: Guard Justin Robinson scored 28 points and Oklahoma transfer Je’lon Hornbeak added 17 as Monmouth (New Jersey) won 82-72 Saturday at Drexel. … The Hawks opened the season with an overtime victory at UCLA before losing to USC. … Monmouth will travel nearly 8,700 miles in playing its first eight games on the road. … The Hawks play 12 of their first 13 on the road, where they went 9-7 last season. … Monmouth returns one starter (Robinson) off last year’s team that finished 18-15, 13-7 and tied for third in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. It was the Hawks’ first winning season since 2005-06. … Monmouth is picked by the conference coaches to finish second to Iona in the 11-team MAAC. Robinson is a first team all-league preseason pick. … Former North Carolina guard King Rice is 41-77 in four seasons at Monmouth. … The Hawks took a 14-day foreign tour of China in late May and early June, where they went 3-1 in four exhibition games. … Notre Dame is 5-0 lifetime against Monmouth with the last meeting Nov. 12, 2012, an 84-57 Irish win in South Bend. … Notre Dame last played on Thanksgiving night on Nov. 25, 2010 in this tournament, formerly known as the Old Spice Classic. The Irish beat Georgia, 89-83 in double overtime. It was the first of three wins in four nights for Notre Dame, which also beat California and Wisconsin to capture the tournament title … Other teams in this year’s field include Alabama, Dayton, Iowa, USC, Wichita State and Xavier … The winner of Thursday’s game advances to Friday’s semifinals to face either Dayton or Iowa at approximately 9:30 p.m.

• WORTH QUOTING: “All I know is, we’ve got our hands full Thursday.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.