Analysis: It's bounce-back time for Notre Dame seniors V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Two corners of a cramped locker room told a potentially troubling postseason tale Thursday afternoon for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

In one corner, off to the left of the entrance, sat senior captain V.J. Beachem. In the other, just to Beachem’s left over on the far wall, was fellow senior captain Steve Vasturia.

Both camped in front of their assigned cubicles and worked through the postgame media scrum of questions and comments. Each offered their opinions on the 60-58 first-round victory over No. 12 Princeton.

That the senior captains were in the locker room after a tournament win and not at the postgame dais down the hallway meant either A) the Notre Dame season was over following an upset loss or B) neither of the guys — main guys, key guys, gotta-deliver guys — played well enough to warrant being on said dais.

With No. 5 seed Notre Dame (26-9) advancing to the NCAA Tournament's second round for a third-straight year, where it will face No. 4 seed West Virginia (27-8) on Saturday (12:10 p.m., CBS), everyone knows that (A) is not the answer.

It was all about (B), the result of a C effort.

It was three months ago, nearly to the day, that Beachem and Vasturia last struggled together in a really big way in an equally important big game. On Dec. 17 in Indianapolis, Beachem scored 10 points on 4-of-8 from the floor. Vasturia had a season-low three points after making one of eight shots as Notre Dame let a 14-point lead get away in an 86-81 loss to Purdue in the annual Crossroads Classic.

Afterward, Irish coach Mike Brey spoke on his team’s chances of moving forward if his two seniors drifted through games the way they did that day, when neither scored in the second half.

“They have to be really good for us to beat good teams,” Brey said.

On Friday, Brey joked from KeyBank Center that he hoped all the local Irish fans would be bailed out of jail after the Saint Patrick's Day parties in time for Saturday’s tip. He’d settle for having his two seniors sprung loose after a tough game.

“We need those guys to be who they’ve been for most of their careers,” Brey said. “We ride those guys.”

Notre Dame is back in the second round after its seventh NCAA Tournament win since 2015, despite dubious opening efforts from Beachem and Vasturia. Beachem tied his season low of two points after making only one of nine shots, none of his three from 3. Vasturia was one of three Irish to score double figures (10 points), but connected on only three of 12 shots, one of two from 3.

Neither came close to their season averages. Beachem scores 14.7 points per game, Vasturia 13.2.

Beachem seemed to drift through extended stretches with a look about him that wondered whether the end was near.

“I might have been in a little bit of rush, especially in the second half,” Beachem said. “Not getting a touch for a while, not getting a shot for a while, I think I did a great job not thinking about that.

“In the second half, I could have done better.”

Vasturia forced some stuff he normally wouldn’t do in order to try and get going.

“Just knock down some more shots and continue to be aggressive,” Vasturia said. “That’s the one thing that’s good about this team. We’ve got a bunch of guys who score and contribute.

“Myself and V.J., I think we’ll bounce back.”

Juniors Bonzie Colson (18 points) and Matt Farrell (16) handled the heavy lifting in their place, but this is the seniors’ team. This has to be their time.

West Virginia’s suffocating pressure and physical style await. The seniors have to be solid Saturday, or it will be over. The run toward a possible third-straight Elite Eight. The season. Their careers.

As Beachem and Vasturia struggled — they combined for six second-half points — Brey had a chance to make a rotation move. Sophomore Matt Ryan busted loose for six points, including two dunks, in nine very effective first-half minutes. He scored zero points in the second half, in large part because he played zero minutes.

Why would Brey not use him?

Why would he?

Brey’s nothing if not loyal to his guys. Especially his main guys. If Notre Dame was going to go down in the first round to Princeton — and if it’s going to go down Saturday in the second round to West Virginia — Brey’s going to do it with his key guys on the court.

Beachem has logged over 3,000 career minutes. Saturday is career game No. 132. Vasturia’s played over 4,300 minutes. Saturday is career game No. 137.

If Ryan returns to ND after a struggle of a season to play as an upperclassman in this program, he’ll be afforded the same leeway that Brey gives Beachem and Vasturia.

He’s going to keep them on the floor with the belief that it’s eventually going to come back around. More often than not, it does.

It has to Saturday.

Back in Brooklyn last week following Notre Dame’s loss to Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, Brey trudged toward the postgame interview session with his seniors on either side of him.

That moment marked likely the last time that Beachem and Vasturia would sit alongside Brey at a postgame pressure to dissect the hows and whys of what had transpired. Next time Notre Dame loses, be it this weekend, next or whenever, Brey probably will have with him Colson and Farrell —next season’s core.

That’s how quickly Brey turns the page toward the following season.

The program moves on. As does time.

Beachem and Vasturia have a chance Saturday to make sure it stands still for a few more days.

Coach Mike Brey is counting on big bounce-back games from Notre Dame seniors Steve Vasturia (left) and V.J. Beachem (right) in Saturday's NCAA Tournament second-round game with West Virginia. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

NCAA TOURNAMENT

Second Round

West Region

WHO: No. 5 seed Notre Dame (26-9 overall, 12-6 ACC) vs. No. 4 West Virginia (27-8, 12-6 Big 12).

WHERE: KeyBank Center (19,200), Buffalo, N.Y.

WHEN: Saturday at 12:10 p.m.

TV: CBS.

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: Tarik Phillip scored 16 points and Nathan Adrian added 12 points and 10 rebounds to lead West Virginia to an 86-80 victory over No. 13 seed Bucknell in Thursday’s first round. It was the most points scored by West Virginia in an NCAA game since 102 in 1982. … The Mountaineers finished with 17 offensive rebounds, a (+10) rebounding advantage and outscored the Bison 37-5 in bench points. … West Virginia has won four of its last five. It lost consecutive games only once this season. Its lone non-league loss was to Temple. … The Mountaineers finished 13th in the final Associated Press poll before tournament play; the Irish were ranked 14th. … West Virginia averages 82.1 ppg., and allows 66.7. Opponents shoot .425 percent from the field, .352 from 3. The Mountaineers have 360 steals and have forced 710 turnovers. … West Virginia led the Big 12 in scoring margin (+15.4), assists (16.7), steals (10.3) and turnover margin (+8.0). It ranked second for scoring defense (66.7) and assist/turnover ratio (1.4) and ranked third for scoring offense (82.1). The Mountaineers finished fourth in field goal percentage defense (.425), 3-point field goal percentage defense (.352), rebounds (37.4) and 3-pointers (7.5). … Notre Dame leads the all-time series, 27-12, and has won two in a row and three of five. … Saturday is the first meeting since a 71-44 Irish victory on Feb. 22, 2012. The Irish were 18-8, including 11-straight wins, against the Mountaineers as Big East colleagues. Notre Dame is 2-2 against West Virginia in neutral-site games. This is the first game with both teams ranked since Jan. 9, 2007, a 61-58 Notre Dame win. The Irish were ranked No. 22; the Mountaineers 21 in that game. … This is the second-straight season the teams were bracketed to meet in the second round. They were supposed to play in the 2016 NCAA Tournament before No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin upset then-No. 3 seed West Virginia in the first round. … The winner of this game advances to the West Regional semifinal Thursday in San Jose, Calif., to face the winner of Saturday’s game between No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 8 Northwestern.

QUOTING: “This brings back a lot of Big East memories. Great games. Great battles. Great matchups.”

• Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on facing West Virginia.