Notre Dame’s postseason success will hinge on the play of its Big Four, its upperclassmen lineup of seniors V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia and juniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell.
Those four have started every game this season for the 25th-ranked Irish, who are 20-7 overall and 9-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference entering Saturday’s road game at NC State (noon, ESPN).
The marching orders for the fifth starter?
“Your role should be, don’t screw up the Big Four, learn how to play with them,” head coach Mike Brey said. “It’s a real simple rule. The Big Four are in a good rhythm.
“The way we’re playing on the offensive end is helping the four most important guys.”
Notre Dame’s Big Four has done 75.9 percent of the team’s scoring. Only freshman guard T.J. Gibbs (5.2) and sophomore wing Rex Pflueger (4.8) contribute more than three points a game.
With so much hanging on the performances of the Big Four, here are the areas Brey and the Irish are focusing on as postseason play approaches:
The junior guard is among the most improved players in the country, upping his points per game average to 14.3. His jump of 11.7 points per game is the biggest among ACC players this season. That’s also the second-best improvement for a player in the Brey era, tops being Tim Abromaitis’ 14.4-point increase in 2009-10.
The fiery Notre Dame point guard ranks 82nd in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.14) and third in the ACC in assists per game (5.5) while balancing a major scoring role on the offensive end.
“Always making sure I’m taking care of the ball,” said Farrell, who has just six games of four-plus turnovers this year. “Not turning the ball over, and making sure we get great shots every time down the floor. We want to make teams guard us because we know how efficient we can be, so just not turning the ball over and taking good shots.”
Brey, though, has his focus on the finer points of Farrell’s defense.
“Defending and being a voice off the ball defensively and being engaged defensively when he’s not guarding the guy with the ball is something I stay after him about,” Brey said.
With Notre Dame now starting and playing a majority of its minutes with a small, four-guard lineup, the senior wing is now guarding opposing teams’ power forwards.
That means Beachem is being asked to rebound, something he thrived doing Tuesday night at Boston College. The Fort Wayne native grabbed eight rebounds in the 84-76 come-from-behind victory.
“With V.J. we’ve liked that he’s rebounded a little more,” Brey said. “He’s around the bucket, he’s blocked some shots. It’s because he starts on a power forward now, so he’s around the basket a little more.”
Beachem is averaging 3.8 rebounds a game, second-best on the team. Those rebounding duties fall primarily to Colson, the ACC’s top rebounder at 10.7 a game.
Since a two-point outing against Louisville Jan. 4, Beachem is averaging 16 points a game, including five 20-plus-point efforts. His ability to raise his game in big games is something the Irish will need — Beachem averaged 17.5 points a game in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
That experience could benefit Notre Dame down the stretch.
“It’s a really big advantage for us in March. Just knowing the right time to find it and knowing our bodies, that’s something that Coach Brey is great at and something we’ve done a great job at the last couple years.
“I still feel like I’ve got a whole other gear in my game. Just finding that gear, clicking it at the right time, not too early, but just finding it for March is something that I want to do personally.”
Since making 4-of-6 3-pointers at Florida State Jan. 18, the senior guard is just 8-of-40 (20 percent) from long range over the past eight games.
Vasturia was just 1-of-7 against Boston College and did not connect on any of his four attempts against the Seminoles Feb. 11.
Notre Dame’s upcoming break — the Irish have a bye week following Saturday’s game at NC State — and that should benefit Vasturia, who averages a team-high 34.1 minutes a game.
“Steve hasn’t shot it well lately, but that’s fatigue and these last two days hopefully got him back and next week we’ll get him back,” Brey said.
Vasturia is averaging 14.1 points a game and is shooting 37.6 percent from 3 for the year. Those marks are up from last season, when he averaged 11.4 points and 34.4-percent shooting from deep. Vasturia was a particularly poor shooter in postseason play last year, making just 4-of-21 attempts (19 percent) combined in the ACC and NCAA Tournament.
Shooting woes aside, Vasturia’s main goal is to just win.
“That’s the thing for everybody in the locker room. Just finding ways to help do that,” Vasturia said. “At the end of the day that’s what we all want, and I can impact and help this team in a lot of ways. Just continuing to be aggressive offensively. Staying on the backboard is something that will be important for all of us, because we’ve been better in that area.”
The reigning National Player of the Week, Colson is playing perhaps the best basketball of his career. The junior forward has 27, 30 and 20-point outings his last three games.
Brey didn’t have much to say about what Colson needs to do moving forward.
“Bonzie…I don’t want to overcoach that one,” Brey said. “I’m going to shut up around him.”
The team’s leading scorer (16.9 per game) and rebounder (10.7) has been Notre Dame’s top scoring option since moving to a small lineup full-time. Playing more on the perimeter has benefitted the 6-foot-5 Colson. His footwork remains a point of focus in practice, Brey said, as Colson sometimes has a tendency to shuffle his feet in the post, evidenced by two traveling calls at Boston College.
“He’s a good dancer, but we don’t need him dancing with that pivot foot,” Brey said. “He’s come a long way. Catching, facing, a good base. Coach (Ryan) Humphrey does it with our big guys every day, I say, ‘Keep getting footwork reps with him all the time.’”
Colson did not have any specifics for improving his game. He just wants to find ways to keep winning.
“Just win as much games as we can and just keep leading by example,” Colson said. “Keep staying level headed and motivated and hungry and humble.