Notre Dame senior captains ready for ACC tag-team basketball effort

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH – One of the team’s two senior captains flourished on the game’s biggest stage in March, which put him on the early-season Wooden Award watch list and helped slingshot into a solid start that includes career-best averages nearly across the board.

The other is closing in on 100-straight starts, has already scored over 1,000 career points and is considered the glue that holds everything together as he quietly goes about his basketball business.

Both are on track to graduate in the spring with degrees from the Mendoza College of Business, which means they’re smart enough to understand the importance of their roles for No. 24 Notre Dame (11-2) come the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. That starts Saturday with an afternoon visit to Pittsburgh (11-2).

For V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia, the next 18 games, the final 18 regular-season games of their collegiate careers, are the most important. When their careers do end, people will remember a moment here or a shot there over their four seasons.

But their four years will be defined by what they do, and how they lead, through these final two-plus months.

Conference play is the time for seniors to deliver. Every game. Every night. Every week.

“This is when the real stuff starts,” said Vasturia, who is averaging 14.4 points with 3.3 rebounds in 31.7 minutes and will make consecutive start No. 95 at the Petersen Events Center. “This is where we’ve got to lock in. We know what the ACC schedule is like.”

They also know the burdens that the seniors before them carried, embraced and then delivered on during league play.

Two years ago, with memories of a 15-17 record the previous winter still stinging, seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant took Notre Dame on a ride for the ages. The Irish went 32-6, finished 14-4 in the ACC, won the school’s first-ever conference tournament championship and advanced to their first NCAA Tournament Elite Eight since 1979.

The seniors simply pushed the group daily to overcome any obstacle. Then they did.

A year ago, senior captains Zach Auguste and A.J. Burgett talked way before the start of preseason practice of wanting to and needing to leave their own marks on the program. The result was another successful season (24-12 overall, 11-7 in the ACC) and return trip to the Elite Eight, something that the program hadn’t seen since 1978-79.

It’s now time for Beachem and Vasturia to deliver. But what? How?

The bar is awfully high.

“It’s unbelievable,” coach Mike Brey said of matching/exceeding the ACC results level set by the program’s last two senior classes. “We can’t get (an NCAA tournament) bid without those guys playing really well for us.”

That means nights both experienced two weeks ago Saturday in Indianapolis must be kept to a minimum, and preferably avoided altogether. In a five-point loss to No. 15 Purdue, Beachem and Vasturia staggered through scoreless second halves. Beachem attempted only one shot, refused a post-game shower and sought silent refuge aboard the team bus.

Vasturia believes both are mature enough and seasoned enough to handle the coming ups and downs of league play.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” he said. “There’s going to be adversity. That’s to our advantage.”

Particularly since the pair has seen each end of the conference success spectrum. Outside of Virginia (29-7) and Duke (26-10), no ACC program has enjoyed as much success the previous two conference seasons than Notre Dame (25-11). But prior to that magical run of 2014-15, Beachem and Vasturia were frazzled freshmen tossed into a near-impossible situation on an Irish team that staggered to a 6-12 showing in league play in 2013-14.

Beachem, averaging career-highs for points (15.6), rebounds (4.4) and minutes (32.6) laughed at the thought of trying to compete that year with the league’s elite without any reference point or compass or idea. That scrawny kid then is now a seasoned senior.

“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “It’s taught us a lot. Now we’ve got to share that knowledge and get these guys ready.”

Both approach their final ACC runs in an all-business, confident manner. What happened last week won’t matter. Neither will what might happen next week. All that does is the here and now. Stay in today and don’t get caught pondering the yesterdays and tomorrows.

“You take it day by day and game by game, cherish every practice and every game and only worry about the moment,” Beachem said. “You try to get one win, then move on to the next one.

“You don’t look back or forward.”

As Vasturia pondered what awaits in conference play, he often referenced how 18 games is a long grind. He was reminded that although it may seem like a haul now, once it starts, it’s going to race by. Earlier this week, he was preparing for the conference opener, still three days away. Before either of the two know it, it will be Senior Day and the home finale March 1 against Boston College.

When this train gets starting, it’s really going to get rolling. Blink and it all will be over.

“That’s how it happens,” Vasturia said. “That’s why we’ve got to give it everything we’ve got.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame small forward V.J. Beachem embraces the expectations for him and fellow senior captain Steve Vasturia as Atlantic Coast Conference play begins Saturday at Pittsburgh. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)

WHO: No. 24 Notre Dame (11-2) vs. Pittsburgh (11-2).

WHERE: Petersen Events Center (12,508), Pittsburgh.

WHEN: Saturday at 2 p.m.

TV: WMYS.

INTERNET: ACC Network Extra at WatchESPN.com.

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.

 NOTING: Jamel Artis and Michael Young each scored 30 points Wednesday to lead Pittsburgh past Marshall, 112-106. Young added six rebounds and four assists while forward Sheldon Jeter had 21 points and 10 rebounds. The Panthers led by as many as 29, then allowed the Thundering Herd to score 68 points in the second half, 57 the final 14:35. Pittsburgh finished 26-of-37 from the free throw line. … The Panthers have won five in a row and nine of 10. … Pittsburgh has losses to Duquesne and Southern Methodist. … Young averages a league-best 22.8 ppg.; Artis averages 20.8. Young leads all active ACC players in career scoring with 1,483 points. … Artis and Young are the only starters who return off last year’s team that finished 21-12, 9-9 and tied for ninth place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. … Pittsburgh was picked in preseason to finish 12th in the league; Notre Dame was picked seventh. … This is the ACC opener for both teams. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 31-30. … Mike Brey is 11-11 vs. Pittsburgh as Notre Dame coach. … Kevin Stallings is in his first season at Pittsburgh after 17 at Vanderbilt. … Pittsburgh has won all three meetings as ACC colleagues. Prior to that, Notre Dame won five in a row and six of seven. … Pittsburgh made 10 of its first 12 shots and scored the first 13 points in an 86-82 victory at Purcell Pavilion last January. … Notre Dame opens ACC play on the road for the second-straight season. The Irish lost at Virginia a year ago. … This is Notre Dame’s first visit to Western Pennsylvania since beating Northeastern and Butler in the first and second rounds of the 2015 NCAA tournament at Consol Energy Center. … Notre Dame returns home Wednesday to host No. 6 Louisville.

QUOTING: “On the road, first ACC game, everybody will be ready to go. It’s going to be crazy. If you can’t bring energy then, you might as well not come.”

• Notre Dame senior small forward V.J. Beachem.