Who could be the breakout star for Notre Dame in this year’s NCAA Tournament?
Last year it was V.J. Beachem who made his name in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 17.5 points per game and while shooting 55 percent from 3-point range during the four-game run to the Elite Eight.
Point guard Matt Farrell also turned heads with his tourney performances, breaking into the starting lineup and providing a steady hand alongside the established Demetrius Jackson.
“Anybody wants to step forward they have my permission,” head coach Mike Brey said Sunday.
Notre Dame’s “Big Four” of Beachem, Farrell, senior guard Steve Vasturia and junior forward Bonzie Colson are counted on to provide much of the offense. But the Irish have several other options that can make an impact.
“The Big Four are the Big Four, but any of those other five guys could have an unbelievable impact and really be a key for us to make a move,” Brey said.
Brey gives his bench just 22.5 minutes per game on average, which ranks 341st out of 351 Division I teams. Playing time might be sparse, but Brey expects his reserves to be ready when they’re called upon.
That’s evidenced by a strong showing by junior forward Martinas Geben in the final two regular season games against Boston College and Louisville (a combined 10 points and eight rebounds) and an 11-point outing by sophomore wing Matt Ryan in the ACC Tournament semifinals against Florida State.
"I like that we have some more bodies and some more options, and I give a lot of credit to Marty and Matt Ryan because they were out of the loop, so to speak, and playing but not playing major minutes," Brey said. "...And to have the attitude to hang in there and stay with it and come back and when they're called on to be ready, you've gotta be a pretty solid guy and mature guy to do that because it's hard when you're only getting two or three minutes. And then for Marty, he's starting, and then he's a DNP. But that big body has helped us and we'll need it moving forward.”
Ryan gives Notre Dame its best shooting threat off the bench. The 6-foot-7, 228-pounder is making 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts this season, punctuated by that 3-of-4 effort against the Seminoles.
Geben, Notre Dame’s tallest bench player, is often inserted for rebounding and defensive purposes. The 23-game starter for the Irish is averaging 3.5 rebounds a game this year.
Notre Dame’s fifth starter — sophomore guard Rex Pflueger — is another breakout candidate. His playing time has been consistent since cracking the starting lineup against Wake Forest Feb. 7, logging 28.3 minutes a game.
Known more for his defense, Pflueger isn’t a big-time scorer, averaging just 4.8 points a game. His season-high is 12 against Seattle, and not once did he score double digits in conference play.
Freshman point guard T.J. Gibbs could also be called upon to play a major role. Though the streaky scorer did not tally a point in the semifinals or finals of the ACC Tournament, his ball-handling and poise makes his a logical choice in big-time games.
"It's new territory for him," Brey said of Gibbs, "but all along one of the reasons he's been so ready and he's been such a key guy for us, he's the only new guy we play. Everybody else has been in the program a while that plays, and they've helped him. Steve. Matt. Bonzie and V.J.
"They've really helped T.J., and T.J. also has a maturity that's a little different than most freshmen."
Beachem is no longer an off-the-radar performer for the Irish, but he sees this team as one with many capable bodies off the bench.
“Just knowing that everybody is engaged this time of the year,” he said. “It can be hard, you go through the ups and downs of the season, guys can get disengaged. Just to have everybody engaged right now is great for us on both ends of the floor.
“Really anybody on our team (could break out). We have a team that’s so unselfish that we don’t really care about who’s getting the fame or the glory. As long as guys are playing well, it can be anybody.”