Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

A Real Page-Turner

There was a time when Mike Brey’s post-season anxiety worked against his team. Now he’s loose and has his team believing that winning is the norm.

Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem have been there. So, too, has Austin Torres.  Demetrius Jackson is no longer at Notre Dame, but he experienced it with his classmates.

It was the 2013-14 season. All were freshmen. Jack Cooley, a first-team Big East selection, and veteran Scott Martin had moved on.

Eric Atkins was now a senior and Pat Connaughton was a junior. Without Cooley, Garrick Sherman had taken over as Notre Dame’s big man.

Jerian Grant was back after averaging 13.3 points per game in 2012-13.

But with home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State, and a road loss to Iowa, the Irish were struggling to find their identity when they took on Ohio State four days before Christmas at the BlackRock Gotham Classic in Madison Square Garden.

Leading 58-50 with under two minutes left, the Irish were out-scored 14-3 the rest of the way in a 64-61 loss to fall to 8-4.

Before the weekend came to a close, it was learned that Grant would be academically ineligible for the rest of the season with the start of ACC play – Notre Dame’s first season in its new conference – just two games removed.

Notre Dame’s first-ever ACC opponent would be a team by the name of Duke at Purcell Pavilion.

If it felt like Notre Dame’s world was crumbling around them, there were multiple reasons to feel that way. It was.

After shocking Duke – and perhaps themselves with a 79-77 victory – the remaining 17 ACC games resulted in 12 losses. Nine of the 12 losses were by single digits, including a four-point overtime loss in the home finale against Pittsburgh and a two-point road loss to North Carolina that ended the regular season.

Playing in the noon/first game of the ACC tournament, the Irish were subdued by Wake Forest by 12.

End of season. Finally. Good riddance.

TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED

Not every Notre Dame season ends in an NCAA tournament appearance, and they certainly don’t all result in an ACC championship, an ACC championship runner-up, or back-to-back Elite Eights.

It just seems that way…now.

“Well, this never gets old,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey Sunday afternoon, shortly after the Fighting Irish learned they were the No. 5 seed in the West Region of the NCAA tournament and taking on No. 12 Princeton Thursday in Buffalo.

“We’re thrilled to be back in this thing again. We’re kind of making it an annual event, which is what you want your program to be doing.”

If there’s anyone that doesn’t take it for granted, it’s Brey, who knows what it’s like to miss the tournament not only in his first year as a head coach in the ACC, but for three straight years after taking his third Irish team to the Sweet 16 in 2003.

That’s why before each season, he sets a .500 mark in conference play as the bar, knowing that a break-even mark in the toughest league in the land likely is good enough for a bid with everything beyond that gravy.

“We’re thrilled to be back part of it and hopefully we can go through San Jose,” said Brey, referring to Notre Dame’s Sweet 16 destination should they knock off Princeton, and then the winner of West Virginia-Bucknell.      

RELISH THE MOMENT; EXPECT TO WIN

As a freshman, Steve Vasturia played a prominent role on the 2013-14 Irish team that went 15-17 overall and 6-12 in ACC play. He averaged 23 minutes and five points per game. Brey raved about his basketball IQ, his team-defense awareness, and his bright future in the program.

V.J. Beachem was a bit player as a freshman for the Irish. In fact, considering his lack of physical strength, it might have been prudent to preserve a year of eligibility. He played a little more than eight minutes per game and scored a mere 64 points on the season.

Demetrius Jackson played about 22 minutes per game and scored at a six-point clip behind Eric Atkins. Austin Torres preserved a year of eligibility.

Despite his extended role as a freshman, Vasturia struggled shooting the basketball.

It didn’t all click for Beachem until the post-season last year, his junior season, when he was named to the all-regional team in the NCAA tournament.

Torres is still fighting for minutes as a role player, although he’ll return for a fifth year in 2017-18 and likely serve as one of the Irish captains.

These three plus Jackson know what it’s like to have the pinnacle in sight. They also know what it feels like to be 13th out of 15 teams in the ACC.

Complacency has no place in the Irish basketball program.

“It’s a great feeling just to be in the NCAA tournament,” reflected Beachem Sunday.

“We didn’t make it my freshman year. That’s something that we talk to the young guys about. It’s very valuable. You never know if you’re going to get back to it again.

“So no matter what our seeding or where we’re playing, it’s a great feeling.”

It’s a theme that Brey emphasizes over and over again.

“Coach has told us not to take for granted making the tournament because my freshman year, we didn’t even make it,” Vasturia said.

“I’ve told the younger guys to embrace it and have fun with it. It’s really a great opportunity. It’s March basketball, so just have fun and do what you do.”

What the Irish do now – or at least have done the last three ACC tournaments and two NCAA tournaments – is win. Notre Dame is 6-2 in the ACC tournament since its first year and 6-2 in the NCAAs the last two seasons.

“I was new to the whole thing myself for a year, but after that year, we were able to build on that season, put some wins together and experience what success was like in the NCAA tournament,” Vasturia said.

“Now, it’s not a new experience. You understand how it works. You understand the shoot-around, the time you have to prepare, and that’s a big thing. We’ve got a lot of guys who have been there.”

Entering the 2015 post-season, Notre Dame had been 10-14 in conference tournaments under Brey and 6-9 in NCAA tournaments. Even he had a thing or two to learn about preparing a team for March.

“Keeping us loose and not playing with the weight of the world on our shoulders,” said Brey of the things he’s learned about post-season.

“In some of my earlier years here, I was really uptight because you know it’s one-and-done. I don’t think I helped our teams at times and maybe had them a little uptight.

“As I’ve gotten older and looser with them, we smile a little bit and laugh and we keep them loose because they’re going to play hard. This group prepares itself. I just don’t want them tied up in knots.”

Strong bonds have replaced the knots.

“We’re going into this thing wanting to win,” said Vasturia, “and expecting to win.”


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