FORT WAYNE – Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is approaching the final three games of the regular season with an eye on the future, both near and far.
The Irish (14-14, 5-10 ACC) begin the final stretch at home against Georgia Tech (13-14, 4-10) tonight.
With a home game against Pittsburgh on Saturday and a game at North Carolina on Monday remaining, Brey understands that Notre Dame’s only hope to reach the NCAA tournament for a fifth straight year is to win the ACC tournament, which runs March 12 to 16 in Greensboro, N.C.
It’s a different kind of mentality because we are not on the bubble. We are not playing for seed. We are not a lock. It’s all kind of new to us, Brey said. I think what you’ve got to do is coach for Greensboro, trying to find an identity to do something in Greensboro.
That is kind of how we have approached it.
Part of finding an approach that could help Notre Dame capture the tournament title and earn an automatic NCAA bid is using underclassmen more in the season’s final games. The last three games also give Brey a chance to take a look at what his team will look like next season without seniors Eric Atkins, Garrick Sherman and Tom Knight.
Freshman Steve Vasturia started seven of the last eight games, and freshman V.J. Beachem, a New Haven graduate, made his only career start against Clemson on Feb. 11. Freshman Demetrius Jackson, who missed games against Clemson and Boston College, has played 48 minutes in the last two games after playing in the first 24 games with 14 starts.
The three freshmen are all averaging more than nine minutes with Jackson leading the way with 23.4 per game. Vasturia averages 21.3 minutes, and Beachem averages 9.3.
Brey is also experimenting with using the freshmen with sophomores Austin Burgett and Zach Auguste.
In Sunday’s 70-49 loss to No. 12 Virginia, the two sophomores and three freshmen played just less than a two-minute stretch together in the first half. In the last two games, the three freshmen have been on the floor at the same time on five occasions.
August is averaging 6.6 points and 4 rebounds. Jackson averages 6.5 points and 2 assists. Vasturia averages 4.3 points and 1.1 assists. Burgett averages 2.9 points and 2 rebounds, and Beachem averages 2.6 points.
Our freshmen, who are playing a lot and arguably maybe more than they should be playing in a league like this right now, those guys are actually getting better and getting more opportunities, Brey said.
I want to keep building with them, whether it’s for a run in Greensboro or certainly for next season.
A couple of times in the last couple of games, we’ve had three freshmen and two sophomores on the floor playing together. That is by design. I’ve kind of gotten to that substitution-wise to take a look at that. They have delivered for us.