- Associated Press - Monday, October 24, 2016

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Coach Mike Brey isn’t discouraging Notre Dame players from trying to get past the NCAA Tournament regional finals after back-to-back appearances. He just knows how difficult it will be.

The Irish have won a program-best 56 games the past two seasons. They were led by Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton two years ago when they won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and finished 32-6. Last season, Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste led Notre Dame to a 24-12 record.

And this year?

“You’ve got to get access to the thing before you can have fun in March like we’ve had the last two years, and it will be harder for us to get a bid this year than it was the previous two years given what we’ve lost,” Brey said.

The Irish will be led by a pair of seniors, 6-foot-8 forward V.J. Beachem and 6-6 shooting guard Steve Vasturia. The rest of the starting lineup will be 6-5 forward Bonzie Colson, 6-10 forward Martin Geben and 6-1 point guard Matt Farrell, all juniors.

“We still have a lot of guys back that have won together and have won at a high level,” Brey said. “We have a heck of a lot to work with and we’re still old. Get old and stay old has kind of been a theme around here. So we’ve still got experience.”

Other things to watch for Notre Dame:

SENIOR MOMENTS: The Irish will depend heavily on Beachem, who was third on the team in scoring, averaging 12 points and 3.9 rebounds, and was at his best in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 17.5 points. Vasturia, who was fourth in scoring at 11.4 points, struggled in the NCAA Tournament, making just 29 percent of his shots and averaging 7.8 points.

“To get Vasturia and Beachem open, that’s the No. 1 role of these big guys on the offensive end,” Brey said.

Beachem said he wants to be a better defender and rebounder and drive more to the basket.

“I just need to build off the confidence I had in March and keeping it rolling,” Beachem said.

JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT: Notre Dame has a history of players stepping up as juniors. Beachem became the latest to do it last season when he nearly doubled his scoring after averaging 6.4 points as a sophomore. Auguste, Tim Abromaitis, Rob Kurz and Tyrone Nash made similar jumps. Brey is hoping Geben can become a solid contributor after playing in only 16 games last season, averaging 1.4 points and 0.9 rebounds.

“Martin is a key for us. We need him to have one of those junior years that we’ve had around here,” Brey said.

NEW ASSISTANTS: Brey added two former Irish players as assistants: Ryan Ayers, a captain on the 2008-09 team that finished 21-15, and Ryan Humphrey, a member of Brey’s first team in 2000-01 and helped the Irish earn their first NCAA Tournament berth in 11 seasons.

ROTATION: Brey doesn’t usually go past an eight-man rotation, but heads into this season thinking nine players can contribute regularly.

“Can we do that the whole year? Probably not. But we have to keep all those guys really alive,” he said.

SCHEDULE: The Irish, who play 18 ACC games, face Colorado, Iowa, Purdue, Villanova and either Texas or Northwestern on their non-conference schedule. Brey said there are plenty of chances to build a good resume.

“We’re going to take big punches,” he said. “Can we be stable - which we have been - be resilient, pick off a few? Sometimes it only takes a week. Last year it took a week. It was (North) Carolina, Clemson and Louisville. Game over. We’re in.”

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