Big-time believer Bonzie Colson steps into starting spot

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

When the lights were brightest early in his first college basketball season, Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson found himself in a familiar spot – on the bench.

Struggling early to get in playing shape while trying to figure out where he fit in the rotation, Colson logged six DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) the first 17 games. Of the other 11, he played double figures only three times, and was seldom considered a main guy.

When the house lights fade and the team’s introductory video rolls across the Purcell Pavilion center-court scoreboard for the first time Friday before the first exhibition against NAIA Division II St. Francis (Ill.) University, Colson will find himself in that same spot – on the bench.

Only this time, he will be seated among the Irish starters waiting to hear his name called over the public-address system before charging out to hand-slaps and high-fives.

Among the returning core off last season’s team that finished 32-6, nobody has seen his role expand more than Colson. He’s gone from bench guy to starting guy, someone expected to log major minutes from the jump in 2015-16. But Colson says he's carrying the same mindset as he first had as an end-of-the-rotation guy at this point last season.

“Just continue to do what I did last year,” Colson said of his marching orders the second time around. “Nothing difficult. I want to maintain what I did and do a little more. I’ve got to rebound more. I’ve got to score more.

“Everything they need me to do to help us win.”

From the midway point of January through a magical postseason ride, anytime Notre Dame needed a shot of adrenaline to get going, it could often count on the 6-foot-5, 225-pounder from New Bedford, Mass.

His freshman year started its skyrocket ride one mid-January night in Georgia – consider it the Awakening in Atlanta. With fellow power forward Zach Auguste back on campus dealing with an academic issue and classmate Martinas Geben ineffective in the first half of his lone career start, Colson climbed into the rotation to start the second half against Georgia Tech, and never really ever left.

Even a bloody nose courtesy of an errant Yellow Jacket elbow early in that second half failed to fluster Colson. He packed his left nostril with cotton, then went back to work and finished with a then-career high 10 points and four rebounds. His presence in 22 minutes gave the Irish an energetic edge, one they hadn’t had until that point. He played with a willingness to fight through anything and everything to win.

On a snowy, early-March night just over the Ohio River in Kentucky, Colson helped slingshot Notre Dame into a magical March run with career highs for points (17), rebounds (nine) and minutes (26) in a 71-59 victory over Louisville. It was the start of a streak that saw the Irish win eight in a row before coming to a close against Kentucky.

Colson was a key reason. Seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant may have been the leaders of that team, but Colson was right there, ready to offer good stuff on the floor and in huddles. His attitude, his will, his drive was so infectious, so contagious, so positive that coach Mike Brey had no choice but to play him.

Only once the rest of the way in the regular season would Colson play fewer than 10 minutes in an Atlantic Coast Conference contest.

Every day on the court for Colson isn’t a good day. It’s a great day.

“He is a fearless guy,” Brey said. “He gives us a toughness and belief. He can be a guy when maybe some guys are doubting, he never doubts. He just plays.

“I love that about him and I don’t want to screw that up about him by overcoaching.”

Colson averaged 5.6 points and 2.7 rebounds in 32 games last season. He shot 59.5 percent from the floor, 75.4 percent from the line. He was better during 15 games of ACC play – 7.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, 67.2 percent from the floor and 78.8 percent from the foul line in 14.3 minutes.

Plugging Colson into the starting unit doesn’t come without a potential problem. Last season, he often checked in for his New England buddy Auguste to give Brey his coveted and matchup nightmare – a four-around-one look featuring four perimeter players around one big man. Auguste and Colson now will tag-team on the front-line, but will need to do so while still keeping the floor finely spaced.

Colson has worked this offseason on extending the range on his perimeter shot. At his best around the basket for quick looks and put-backs, Colson has improved his mid-range game, and has occasionally ventured out beyond the 3-point line. He'll need to keep the lane from being jammed up with too many big bodies.

“I’ve been shooting the 3 pretty well,” said Colson, who went 1-of-7 from that distance last season. “I just need to keep doing it consistently.”

Colson again will spend this season without a specific position. Is he an oversized small forward? An undersized power forward? A hybrid? Doesn’t really matter to Brey, who sees Colson simply as a basketball player. One the Irish need to have on the floor. A lot.

Grant was the most efficient player for the Irish last season, but Brey believes Colson was a close second. And he did it while averaging only 12.1 minutes a game with one career start. What can he do in 30, 32, 35 minutes a night?

Time to find out.

“Bonzie’s going to be very important,” Brey said. “I think we’re going to get great productivity.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame sophomore forward Bonzie Colson (35) has an infectious, upbeat attitude when he's on the floor, a place he'll find himelf a lot this coming season.SBT File Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

Exhibition

• WHO: Notre Dame vs. St. Francis (Ill.).

• WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

• WHEN: Friday at 7 p.m.

• TV: None. The game will be streamed live at WatchND.tv.

• 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: A private school affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and an undergraduate enrollment of 1,600 located in Joliet, Ill., St. Francis returns four starters off last year’s team that finished 23-10, 16-3 with a share of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season championship. ... Playing in the same league as local schools IU South Bend and Holy Cross, St. Francis won nine games away from home and advanced to the NAIA Division I tournament for the first time in school history. … Its current 15-man roster carries no player taller than 6-foot-9. … The Saints are ranked 11th in the first NAIA poll. … St. Francis also plays an exhibition Tuesday against Eastern Illinois. … Senior forward Ilya Ilyayev, a Los Angeles native, averaged a team-high 17.5 points last season, fifth in the league. Junior guard and Merrillville native Jake Raspopovich was third in the league in assists (5.5). … The Saints ranked seventh in the CCAC in scoring (72.4 ppg.), third in scoring defense (69.5), first in free throw percentage (75.8), third in 3-point field goal percentage (37.5) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (33.4). … Notre Dame is 30-0 in exhibition games in 15 seasons under coach Mike Brey. … The Irish are 22-0 since exhibitions shifted from competing against all-star teams during the 2004-05 season. …. Notre Dame last lost an exhibition game in November 1999, 105-81 to Marathon Oil. … The Irish close exhibition play Thursday at home against Caldwell (N.J.) University.

• WORTH QUOTING: "I just have to keep being confident and playing hard every day. Do the little things. It's just another (chance) to get better."

-Notre Dame sophomore Bonzie Colson on stepping into a starting role this season.