Notre Dame freshman Bonzie Colson won't back down

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

DURHAM, N.C. – One picture snapped right around the time it started to get really intense best captured what everybody now knows.

Freshman forward Bonzie Colson isn’t afraid. Of the moment. Of the opponent. Of anything he’s asked to do on the basketball court for No. 10 Notre Dame.

Less than three minutes remained in last week’s game against No. 4 Duke. The Irish trailed by one. The Blue Devils had the ball. Expected to defend 6-foot-11 freshman center Jahlil Okafor in the low post with little assistance, the 6-5 Colson embraced his assignment despite giving up six inches and 44 pounds (226 to 270). Working to get to the basket out of a halfcourt set, Okafor pounded the ball to the floor with his left hand once, twice, and looked to bull his way to the bucket for another two points.

Just as Okafor went to work, so did Colson. He swiped his right hand hard across the front of Okafor, and looked to have drawn all ball.

A referee’s whistle halted play. A foul was called on Irish guard Steve Vasturia, who had arrived to help Colson.

With play halted, Colson and Okafor both reached for the ball. Colson grabbed it with his meaty hands and yanked it away. He then planted a left forearm into the right side of everybody’s All-American, who stared back in wide-eyed wonder.

The Tribune photo by Robert Franklin shows Colson cradling the ball in his right arm staring back with a slight scowl at Okafor, who has his hands raised. The kid soon may earn Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year. League player of the year is a possibility, as is first-team All-American honors before Okafor likely becomes the first pick in the June NBA draft. But on this night, in a game the Irish won 77-73, Okafor was just another opponent in Colson’s way.

“He’s a pretty good player, but yeah, I have to think of him as a regular, old basketball player that I’m going up against,” Colson said. “No matter what people say about him, I just have to go out there and play my game, play physical, play aggressive and let everything out.”

Colson did just that against Okafor. He finished with eight points, three rebounds and one block in 15 minutes. In mid-January, Colson rushed his way into the rotation with a career-high 10 points in his first career start at Georgia Tech. When Notre Dame (21-3, 9-2) and Duke (19-3, 6-3) meet again Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium (1 p.m., CBS), Colson will be the first Irish big off the bench with simply work orders:

See Okafor, guard Okafor.

Fear is no factor.

“I’m not scared of nobody on the court,” Colson said. “That allows me to play aggressively and play hard. I just try to go out there and do what I need to do to help us get a victory.”

For the better part of the first two-plus months of Colson’s college career, that meant fine-tuning his game and figuring out his role on the practice floor, then being the most upbeat guy in the gym during games. Even when he wasn’t playing, he was coaching up his teammates, talking the loudest in huddles and making sure everyone remained on the same page.

None of it translated into many game minutes, but everyone took notice.

When starting power forward Zach Auguste missed that Georgia Tech game, Colson stepped in, started and offered contagious enthusiasm and effort. He had been on coach Mike Brey’s mind long before that night in midtown Atlanta. Afterward, it was a done deal – Colson needed to be a part it. He’s now one reason why the rotation has been shaved to seven. Brey would like to go a little deeper, but not at the expense of costing Colson game minutes.

He simply accepts his assignment at any cost. Colson stuck his nose where it didn’t belong against Georgia Tech, and was rewarded with a bloody nose and a fat lip. Brey wondered in the days leading up to the first Duke game whether Colson was willing to again get bloodied and maybe a bit bruised to get the job done.

Yep.

Colson came out of that contest unscathed, but far from unproven.

“Boy, he gave us great stuff, especially the post defense,” Brey said. “His length and his gangliness and unorthodox way of draping himself on a guy really helped us.”

It may have confused Okafor, who didn’t seem prepared for everything Colson had to offer. He was small, but he played tall.

“You get fooled playing against him because of his length,” Brey said of Colson, who has a seven-foot wingspan. “He can bother a shot or even block a shot.”

And now make one. As Colson’s role has increased, so has his confidence. During the first half of Wednesday’s eight-point win over Boston College, Colson found himself alone on the baseline near the Eagles bench. Normally, he would move the ball to a teammate and keep working his way to be around the rim. He wouldn’t even look at the basket. This time, tough, the ball stopped moving as Colson raised up and connected on the 18-foot jumper. Brey wasn’t sure he wanted to see that shot at that point in the clock, but had only one thought when two more points clicked up on the scoreboard.

“That’s another weapon,” Brey said.

Auguste gets the first chance Saturday of guarding Okafor. If the Blue Devil big man gets too comfortable carving out room around the rim, or Auguste tumbles into early foul trouble, Colson will get the call. He’ll be on his own. Again.

The Irish plan to play Okafor much the way they did the first time – rare double-team help with only the occasional assistance from a guard digging down off his man. Be physical with him. Bang him off the block. Body him out of his comfort zone. If he looks like he’s headed for an easy two points, foul him and make him earn it at the free throw line where he shoots 55.6 percent.

Okafor finished with 22 points and a game-high 17 rebounds 10 days ago. He might be headed for a similar stat line.

“We just don’t want him to get 32 and 22,” Brey said.

As for being intimidated Saturday by the crowd, by Okafor, by the environment, by the moment: Colson won’t have any of it. It’s just not who he is.

“There’s really no need for that, man,” he said. “Just play with your heart and good things will come.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: No. 10 Notre Dame (21-3 overall, 9-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 4 Duke (19-3, 6-3).

WHERE: Cameron Indoor Stadium (9,314), Durham, N.C.

WHEN: Saturday at 1 p.m.

TV: CBS.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Cameron Indoor Stadium opened in 1940 at a cost of $400,000 and is named for former Duke basketball and football coach Eddie Cameron, who also served as the school’s athletic director. It formerly was known as Duke Indoor Stadium. … Notre Dame is 0-6 all-time at Cameron with an average margin of defeat of 12.1 points. This is the first Irish trip to Cameron since a 74-72 loss on Jan. 26, 1994. … Coach Mike Krzyzewski passed Dean Smith for the most wins in ACC history (423) with the recent victory over Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils never trailed and never led by more than seven points as senior guard Quinn Cook scored all of his 17 points in the second half. … Duke is 11-1 at home with the loss to Miami (Fla.). … The Blue Devils are ranked fourth in the country in this week’s Associated Press poll, but are tied for fifth place in the ACC with Syracuse. … Notre Dame has won the last two meetings in a series Duke leads 19-4. ... In ND's 77-73 victory on Jan. 28, the game featured 12 ties and nine lead changes. … Duke swingman Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed from the team the following day. … Duke is the only team in the country ranked in the top five in the Associated Press poll (4), the USA Today/Coaches poll (5) the Ratings Percentage Index (5) and Strength of Schedule (5) …Notre Dame is 4-1 on the road in league play. A win would give the Irish their first winning league road record since going 5-4 in 2011-12 as a member of the Big East … Notre Dame visits Clemson Tuesday.

WORTH QUOTING: “There’s nothing that compares, really. Fans are going wild, the adrenaline’s pumping, going crazy. It’s just a great feeling. It motivates us to work harder and go out there and play.”

-Notre Dame freshman Bonzie Colson on playing on the road in the ACC.