Analysis: A better Beachem stands out in Notre Dame rout

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – When Notre Dame last played a college basketball game that really mattered – in the NCAA tournament last spring – swingman V.J. Beachem was arguably the best player on the floor.

He was confident with his game, secure in showing off his skills and ready to have more of a voice within the program. He was really good.

If Saturday serves as an early indication, Beachem may be even better.

Willing to go deeper in his tool box of talents, the Irish tri-captain tied his career high with 22 points. That included a career-best seven free-throw attempts. Having fought foul-line fears last season, he made all seven. Defensively, he rolled up his sleeves – though he wasn’t wearing any – and did some perimeter dirty work during an 89-64 victory over Bryant in the season opener at Purcell Pavilion.

“He’s just extremely confident,” said fellow senior captain Steve Vasturia. “He’s extremely difficult to guard and he’s been showing that since the end of last year.”

The Irish coasted to two embarrassingly easy exhibition victories by a combined average of 59.5 points. The regular season wasn’t going to be as easy. There was going to be some tough stuff when they were going to be challenged to figure it out.

On Saturday, they had to figure it out.

Notre Dame jumped to a 9-0 lead as cruise control beckoned. Bryant then made a big run. The Bulldogs settled down, hit some shots and got some stops. The Irish went stagnant on both ends. Not long after flirting with falling into a double-digit deficit, Bryant took a four-point lead.

The Bulldogs had life.

Something Notre Dame hadn’t experienced since last spring back in Philadelphia at the NCAA Tournament East Regional final – game pressure – was in play.

“It was good,” coach Mike Brey said. “It was kind of a hard game.”

How would Notre Dame respond? By going to its best player – Beachem – and letting him be the best player.

Two quick Beachem buckets tied it at 19. He then went up high to challenge for a defensive rebound, and got enough of the ball to punch it to Vasturia. That possession ended with Beachem being fouled on a 3-point attempt.

Three free throws capped a personal 7-0 run and put the Irish ahead for good. In part, because Beachem was.

Beachem was nowhere near done from the foul line. He made four more trips the rest of the way, and made all four. He was OK with absorbing contact driving the lane. He craved a bump here or a bang there.

In seasons past, he would have avoided contact at all cost. He’d hover on the perimeter where it was safe. On Saturday, a guy who’s sneaky strong embraced it. At 6-foot-8, 201 pounds, Beachem can bench-press the standard 185 pounds during conditioning tests 15, 16 times.

“I’ve got to make a concerted effort to do more than just spot-up and shoot 3s,” said Beachem, who hit one of two from behind the arc.

Finishing at the foul line also has been a focus. After getting off to such a shaky start from the foul line last year – he went 3-of-10 the first 15 games – Beachem remained shy about stepping back there. He attempted a career-high 47 free throws in 36 games, but shot a career-low 57.4 percent.

There were plenty of times where he just didn’t want to be there, so he made sure not to get there.

Not now.

“Last year just got in my head early,” Beachem said. “I’ve always been a pretty good free throw shooter. I just tried to focus more and get off to a good start at the line this year.”

“That’s a great sign,” Brey said.

Beachem made it a point not to shoot more free throws – say x amount every day – but shoot more of them when his effort tank neared empty, which would mirror game situations.

“In the game, you’re tired and go to the free throw line after a lot of action,” he said. “If you can knock them down when you’re tired, you can do it when you’re fresh.”

Defensively, Brey assigned Beachem to Bryant junior guard Hunter Ware. Six inches taller than Ware, Beachem chased him through screens, smothered him anytime he looked open and kept him scoreless on 0-for-6 shooting.

Like with his work on the other end, it’s something Beachem hasn’t shown. But there’s something different about him.

“He was so ready to play this morning at our shoot-around,” Brey said. “That is a real step forward for him.”

• NOTRE DAME 89, BRYANT 64

At Purcell Pavilion

BRYANT (64): Marcel Pettway 2 0-0 4; Dan Garvin 2 0-0 4; Ikenna Ndugba 4 0-0 8; Nisre Zouzoua 7 3-4 19; Adam Grant 4 2-2 13; Sebastian Townes 5 6-11 16. TOTALS: 24 11-17 64.

NOTRE DAME (89): V.J. Beachem 7 7-7 22; Martinas Geben 2 0-0 4; Bonzie Colson 8 6-6 23; Matt Farrell 2 0-0 4; Steve Vasturia 6 3-4 16; Rex Pflueger 2 2-2 6; Austin Torres 1 0-0 2; T.J. Gibbs 1 3-4 5; Matt Ryan 1 0-0 2; Elijah Burns 0 5-6 5; Matt Gregory 0 0-0 0; John Mooney 0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 30 26-29 89.

Halftime score: Notre Dame 43, Bryant 31; 3-point baskets: Notre Dame 3-16 (Beachem, Colson, Vasturia), Bryant 5-21 (Zouzoua 2, Grant 3); Total fouls (fouled out): Bryant 24 (Grant), Notre Dame 16. Records: Notre Dame 1-0; Bryant 0-1; turnovers: Notre Dame 3, Bryant 13; rebounds: Bryant 37 (Garvin 12), Notre Dame 34 (Colson 9, Geben 7).

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's V.J. Beachem chases down a loose ball before a layup during Saturday's game against Bryant.Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA