V.J. Beachem saved his best for his last home game as a collegian, scoring 22 points and posting the best individual plus/minus – Notre Dame was +24 when he was on the floor – of any Irish player in a contest this season.
(Beachem’s +24 was small feat considering the Irish trailed for the bulk of the first half.)
Now he needs to improve, or more accurately, reach the level of play of which he proved capable last March when Beachem was anointed All-Regional status leading Notre Dame to its second straight Elite Eight.
“He’s in a great rhythm, man,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “He’s just been moving great. Going smaller helped him and now he’s feeling really good about himself. The Big Four are going to have to be really good to play deep in either tournament.”
Beachem’s march through March 2016 included a 7-for-13 shooting effort from long range in two ACC Tournament games. He followed by hitting 12-for-22 from beyond the arc in a quartet of NCAA contests – that augmented by a ridiculous 26-for-40 performance from the field overall.
The difference between then and now? In 2016, Beachem entered Tournament Season as the squad’s fifth offensive wheel, registering double digits just once in the final six regular season contests.
Now he’s one of the two main players counted on for production.
Notre Dame can win an ACC and NCAA Tournament game without Beachem lighting it up. But it can’t win two or more in either without sterling performances from its best pure shooter and ever-improving offensive player.
MORE HANDS ON DECK
Notre Dame’s rotation was a solid nine-deep through the opening quintet of conference contests, but that number shrunk to Brey’s requisite six/seven as streaks – first losing, then winning – occurred along the way.
By design, Notre Dame expanded its competitive game participants back to nine Wednesday night, and the biggest beneficiary of that plan for rotational relief was former starting center Martin Geben.
Exiled to DNP-CD status over the last two contests (“Coaches Decision” is the latter ignominious verbiage that follows “Did Not Play” in that acronym), the junior big man had not scored a point since February 5 or grabbed a rebound since February 7, playing an aggregate 15 minutes over the previous six contests.
Last night, Geben hit three of his four shots, grabbed four boards including a tip-dunk (one that followed a pretty backdoor pass in which Geben found Matt Farrell), blocked a shot, dished out an assist and registered a passing lane steal in 10 minutes – the bulk of which was not garbage time action
“The biggest thing was getting Martin Geben back in the flow,” said Brey. “I just think we’re going to need him. We’re going to need more hands on deck for the post-season. He didn’t play at all two games in a row and I talked to him a little bit (last week) to be ready.
“It wasn’t anything (Austin) Torres didn’t do. It was to give some minutes to Martin to make him feel good about himself. That big body helps us. It screens; it leans on big guys. We’re not opposed to playing two ‘bigs’ at times.”
Torres was the last of Notre Dame’s nine to enter but likewise contributed with a rebound, an assist, and a steal in six minutes – the steal and assist occurring immediately upon contest entry.
Positive Presence(s): Freshman guard T.J. Gibbs added four assists, three boards, two steals and two buckets in 21 minutes off the bench while committing just one turnover. Formerly forgotten shooter Matt Ryan played 11 minutes – his longest contribution of the ACC season.
Notable in Ryan’s court time was the following first: no points (no shots), but a +11 plus-minus ratio during his time on the court – that is, Notre Dame outscored Boston College by 11 while Ryan played. The sophomore entered the contest with a negative-15 plus-minus effort overall in conference play, easily the squad’s worst.
But it was Gibbs who again impressed Brey, playing both in relief and alongside starter Matt Farrell (14 points, 28 minutes) at the point.
“He sticks his nose in there and makes plays,” said Brey of Gibbs. “He didn’t shoot it well (2-for-8) but he plays downhill, shakes stuff up, gets his hands on things. He’s such an experienced guy right now. We’ve leaned on him since Day One and he’s come through for us.”
Gibbs is the given, the invaluable sixth man. He ranks second behind Bonzie Colson on the season with a +58 plus/minus entering the season finale at Louisville. But Geben, Ryan, and Torres will have to chip in as well if the Irish are to earn upsets beginning Saturday (they’ll be the underdogs) through late March.
THE UNTHINKABLE WITHIN REACH
Four weeks ago, Notre Dame was 6-5.
With a win Saturday at No. 9 Louisville (the Cardinals lost at Wake Forest last night) and a little help six hours later from Brey’s old Blue Blood friends from Durham, Notre Dame can share the ACC’s regular season crown.
We did not see that coming. And by “We” I mean, you, me, Brey, the players, their parents, and every ACC foe.
“It’s unbelievable. I’m so proud of this group,” said Brey. “I don’t want anyone talking about a double bye. I want us thinking about trying to share the regular season championship.”
North Carolina hosts Duke Saturday night, the annual collision that concludes the ACC regular season on ESPN. An Irish win at 2:00 ET coupled with a North Carolina loss at 8:00 allows the two to share the *regular season title.
(*The ACC is the only conference that recognizes its tournament champion as its league champion. For example, though they finished third in the regular season, Notre Dame is the 2015 ACC Champion. There is no technical regular season crown – the NCAA Selection Committee, of course, disagrees.)
“They’ve come off the mat. You heard me say it in late-December. ‘We know the punches are going to come.’ We got out of the gate 5-0 by the skin of our teeth – and (then) here it comes,” he said of what became a four-game losing streak to Virginia, at Georgia Tech, Duke, and at North Carolina.
Notre Dame has won six straight since, the longest active streak in the ACC.
“Really everyone in the league has taken it except Carolina. Everybody has had it put on them. But I never doubted we’d be back in form,” said Brey. “We have a stable group, a mature group. We’ve taken advantage (of the softening schedule), there’s no doubt.
“Really proud of our leadership. We’re healthy and have good energy headed to the post-season.”