Feb. 25, 2017
By John Heisler
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. . . . If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two Impostors just the same. . . . Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”
— from English poet Rudyard Kipling’s 1910 work “If–“
Call them the quiet sharpshooters.
They go about their business in workmanlike fashion, sometimes in flashy form, other times making the late jackpot play.
They’ve both spent their share of time in the spotlight.
Yet they prefer to toil away from the limelight.
Mention the names of University of Notre Dame men’s basketball senior captains V.J. Beachem (from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and New Haven High School) and Steve Vasturia (from Medford, New Jersey, and St. Joseph’s Prep) and most Irish fans will tell you they barely would recognize the sounds of their voices.
The two Notre Dame seniors will be doing their thing in front of the home fans for the final two times when the Irish play host to Georgia Tech Sunday and Boston College Wednesday at Purcell Pavilion.
Ask Notre Dame players and coaches and they are convinced the demeanors of Beachem and Vasturia are a prominent key to the Irish success.
Check out the Irish pregame introductions. Carefully orchestrated–in some part by sophomore Rex Pflueger–each starting player has his own routine.
Beachem holds his hands together as if in prayer and bows to Pflueger.
“It’s their own thing,” says Pfleuger. “He and Steve are both loud in actions and not loud in words. They’re not all about the fancy handshakes–they like to keep it simple.
“V.J. is a methodical player. The bow is about showing respect to one another.”
Vasturia does a rather interesting, unusual one-legged hop and hip bump with Pflueger (though Pflueger’s recent promotion to the starting lineup has injected freshman Nikola Djogo into the rotation).
“With Steve we just run and jump into one another,” says Pflueger. “It’s kind of a celebratory jump, but Steve’s not a flashy player. He just does his job every single day–he’s the most consistent player in college basketball, I think. So when he does that he’s saying that he’s not here to show off, he’s here to get his job done.”
That may be as much “fun” as Beachem and Vasturia appear to have–because once the game begins they do their jobs with straight faces and clinical precision.
They seldom react, they seldom smile, they seldom exhibit much of anything in terms of emotion.
Vasturia often projects something of a sleepy-eyed look, while Beachem has a perpetual forlorn gaze on his face. But don’t be deceived.
They maintain their purposeful countenances–whether faced with triumph or adversity.
“They are always poised in any scenario,” adds Pfleuger. “You want a steady consistent mindset through the game, I believe. You never want to get too low or too high on yourself. They do a great job keeping us contained–whether we’re on a great run and they are helping to keep it going or if we’re getting kicked in the butt and they want to keep our minds straight because they know this game is full of ups and downs. They aren’t going to adjust their attitudes according to the game, they’re just going to play their games.”
And even when things aren’t going so well, Beachem (1,124 career points) and Vasturia (1,319) often find ways to pull rabbits out of their hats at the most opportune times.
Take this season’s Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Pittsburgh on New Year’s Eve day.
The Irish trailed by as many as 11 points in the first half and neither Beachem nor Vasturia had done much to write home about (at halftime the duo had combined to hit only two of 11 shots). But when things still looked bleak late, there they were.
With Notre Dame down by three late in regulation, Matt Farrell missed a three-point attempt, Bonzie Colson’s rebound shot was blocked and the ball caromed out to Beachem at the free-throw line. From there Beachem made probably the most athletic play of the day in elevating and driving to the hoop for a bucket. Vasturia’s two free throws at the 25-second mark pushed the contest to overtime just before Beachem’s block with two seconds to go preserved the tie.
Through regulation Vasturia had hit one of his six field-goal attempts. But he began the overtime with a bucket at 4:22. At 1:13 his three-pointer tied the contest at 75 and with two seconds remaining his three amazingly put the visitors up by one–and Beachem made the steal on Pittsburgh’s final inbounds attempt.
Their combined final stat lines read seven-for-22 shooting (three for 13 on threes) and four rebounds.
But no one who watched had any doubt about their influence.
“Both those guys were struggling, but you leave them in the game, you keep playing and you never know what the heck is going to happen,” says Irish assistant coach Rod Balanis.
Vasturia at 6-6 and Beachem at 6-8 both play on the wing–and they combine with Farrell to take a little more than two-thirds of the Irish attempts from beyond the three-point line. Vasturia may qualify as Notre Dame’s best all-around player given his defensive and passing skills, while Brey nudges Beachem to think a bit more about rebounding with the Irish now committed to their smaller perimeter lineup.
But both players are most known for their shooting–and that can mean some streaks.
Beachem managed only four, six, two, four and three points this year in various Irish games against Villanova, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Virginia Tech and Virginia (he was a combined none-for-19 shooting from the three-point line in those contests). Yet he’s currently on a tear.
Over his last seven games, Beachem has averaged 19.1 points (up substantially from his season mark of 15.4) while knocking down 25 of 58 (.431) in the three-point category (the Irish as a team shoot at a .397 clip).
Vasturia endured a mini-slump late in January when the Irish lost consecutive games to Georgia Tech, Duke and North Carolina when he went a combined one for 13 from three-point land and averaged seven points.
Yet no one made more clutch plays that he did in Notre Dame’s five ACC wins to get out of the gate:
–His late three-pointer at Pitt gave the Irish that one-point victory.
–He had a career-high 24 points against Louisville.
–His three-pointer at 1:45 brought the Irish from behind against Clemson.
–His driving runner with eight seconds left proved the clincher at Miami.
–He led the Irish with 20 points at Virginia Tech.
“V.J. does it in a different way. He does it through his play,” says Farrell. “When he starts playing harder, that’s when you know he’s trying to tell you something. A lot of people think Steve’s a shy guy, but off the court he’s really funny.
“They’re even-keeled. When stuff’s going bad, you look at V.J.’s and Steve’s faces and nothing changes. Even if they aren’t playing well, nothing changes. They kind of give you the idea, `We’ve been here before.'”
Maybe no one understands and appreciates the contributions of Beachem and Vasturia better than Mike Brey–in part because the two Irish seniors help the often excitable Notre Dame head coach keep his eye on the prize.
“I’ve always looked at it (Beachem’s and Vasturia’s demeanors) as kind of a positive and a way to stay poised,” says Brey. “They’re just really calm guys. We’ve had fiery guys here–Matt (Farrell), Bonzie (Colson), Demetrius (Jackson), Zach (Auguste)–they could get a little all over the board.
“V.J. and Steve are really steady and solid. They come in and do their work. Because they are so stable, the things they say in timeouts are always so calm and good now that they are veterans in our program and I can only imagine what they are saying in huddles on the court. They probably help Matty and Bonzie.
“I’ve never worried that they didn’t have an edge or they didn’t play with fire. You could always see that they competed and went after it. It’s neat to see that you can talk to them in the midst of battle and they receive the information.
“I’ll come into a timeout a little bit late and I’ll catch a little of one or both of them talking. Number one, it’s right on, and number two, it’s right here. It’s never, “WE GOTTA DO THIS, WE GOTTA DO THAT.’ It’s right here.
“I think it’s helped us be poised, I think it’s helped us in close games.
“A great example was when NC State went zone and made a run Saturday in Raleigh. Now we’re a little tight, but they were right here. As that run came, there was never any `OH MY GOD.’
“Steve a lot of times, with this (cool) demeanor, will kind of go–and it could be hitting the fan in a one-possession game–and he’ll go, `Let’s get two stops, have a good offensive possession and we’re fine.’ He kind of says it like that–kind of like, `Everybody just relax.’
“His demeanor like that–I’ll tell you it helps me.
“They just keep playing and that’s why you keep `em in the game and they play a lot of minutes.”
Both Vasturia and Beachem rank among the top dozen players in the ACC in minutes played per game.
“I think they trust me in that when they’re not going good I’m not playing head games with them as far as substituting,” adds Brey. “They know, `I can be calm. Coach rides this stuff out with me. We’ve been here before.’ That trust has been built since they’ve been main guys.”
So it’s no accident that Beachem and Vasturia have been mainstays over a three-year period in which the Irish have won more games (77 heading into a home date with Georgia Tech Sunday) than in any other three-season window.
“Mike wants those guys to have ownership of this team,” says Balanis. “When they say it, they have good stuff to say. They are two of my favorite guys to coach, in all the time I’ve been here, because all they care about is winning.”
Both players earned their share of headlines prior to 2016-17.
Beachem played well enough down the stretch a year ago to stick his toe into the NBA pool before deciding to stay in South Bend for a final year. He scored 19 against Duke in the 2016 ACC Championship semifinal, then 18, 15, 19 and 18 in Notre Dame’s four NCAA games against Michigan, Stephen F. Austin, Wisconsin and North Carolina. He hit 19 of his last 35 three-point attempts over his final six games.
Vasturia established a then-career high with 22 points in a 2016 regular-season win over sixth-rated Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. His cool-as-a-cucumber baseline jumper (with 22 seconds left) as a sophomore helped seal a home-court win over the fourth-rated Blue Devils. It was Vasturia’s only bucket of the night.
They both gained unexpected minutes as freshmen when veteran Jerian Grant sat out the spring semester.
Over their careers, Beachem has led the Irish in scoring 17 times. Vasturia is at 16.
This season alone they combined for 41 points against Syracuse, 38 each versus North Carolina State and Iowa.
Vasturia leads the ACC (and ranks fifth nationally) in free-throw shooting (.920), helping the Irish pace the country in that category as a team. Beachem ranks third in the league in both three-point goals (73) and three-point percentage (.395).
The home date versus Georgia Tech will be Vasturia’s 110th consecutive starting assignment and his 130th overall. Beachem is right behind at 125.
They may not qualify as walking sound bites, yet the effortlessly nonchalant Beachem and Vasturia have had as much to do with Notre Dame’s consecutive NCAA Elite Eight appearances and current-season success as anybody.
They both will graduate in May from the Mendoza College of Business–Beachem with a marketing major, Vasturia with a management consulting major.
“We’ve got veterans, and yet some nights it’s not going to go our way,” says Farrell. “What they do well is that they believe in Coach Brey and trust what he tells them.
“If it’s not going well, take it easy and let the game come to you. Steve and V.J. are the epitome of that.
“They’re so calm on the court and that helps us–that’s why we’re really good in pressure situations.”
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com