Bonzie Colson a cooler hoops customer as Notre Dame captain

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Climbing the college basketball leadership ladder comes with a price, one that Notre Dame junior power forward Bonzie Colson is prepared to pay because he's already seen the pay-off.

Colson busted loose with a big effort in Notre Dame's season opener Saturday against Bryant. He scored 23 points with nine rebounds, both team highs. Piggy-backing off solid exhibition efforts (he averaged 15.5 points and 10 rebounds), it was the third straight night this fall that the native of New Bedford, Mass., was quietly consistent.

Quiet being the key word.

Operating with little look-at-me attention, Colson just does what he does. Scores. Rebounds. Competes. All that likely continues Wednesday when Notre Dame (1-0) hosts a second-round Legends Classic matchup against Seattle (1-1) at Purcell Pavilion.

“You just play your game, stay in your lane and do anything you can to help the team win,” Colson said. “Just staying confident and not getting out of character really helps.”

Therein lies the balancing act for Colson. How does someone who often can be quite the character on the court manage to remain in said character? It all comes with the territory of being one of team's three captains.

There were times his first two years – go back and watch last year's first-ever win at Duke when Colson turned and gestured at the Blue Devil bench, which didn't sit well with a certain Hall of Fame coach – where Colson's emotions pushed him to the edge.

Colson still teeters there. It's that passion that makes his game so effective. He often can be heard hollering “And one!” after scoring in the post and wanting a foul call. But Colson has worked to curb that enthusiasm when times call for a cooler head.

Welcome to life as an upperclassman and captain for someone who's seen a lot his first two seasons, including consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.

He's been spoiled by success, yet seasoned by those seasons.

“You understand the game more,” Colson said. “I play with so much passion, but being a captain now, I've got to stay in control and tighten up that passion and control it in different ways.

“Staying poised and composed and playing your game, being focused. That's what it comes down to.”

Colson's focus was challenged in the first half of Saturday's opener. Camped right at the rim with the chance at another easy two points, Colson couldn't corral a sweet pass from guard Matt Farrell and committed a turnover. He had a few choice words for himself on the way back down the court, but also reminded himself to let it go and get on to the next play.

The first two years, he would have let the lapse linger. Not now. Not long after his only miscue of the game, Colson was subbed out. As he left, he slapped hands with everyone on the Irish bench, and even two kids in the baseline seats.

It's all about maintaining that positive vibe.

“He's such a warrior,” said coach Mike Brey. “The competitive edge that he has is contagious and it's why we always have a chance. He always sets the tone.”

That includes on the practice floor where Colson has worked to become a more complete player. Through the first 26 practices, only Farrell and fellow point guard T.J. Gibbs had more assists than Colson, who also was shooting 45 percent from 3.

“He's really making great plays,” Brey said.

Even if that play is a bit unorthodox. There's little about Colson's listed position that screams power forward. He stands 6-foot-5 on a good day with a wingspan of just over seven feet. He likely leads the ACC, and perhaps the country, in taking and making tough shots from seemingly impossible spots. Off-balance. Odd angles. In traffic. Against size. They seemingly still go in for someone who hit 53.2 percent of his shots last season, and then 8-of-11 in Saturday's starter.

He's unlike anyone the program has ever seen. Is Colson really a shooting guard/small forward masquerading as a power forward? A hybrid power forward? What is he?

First-year Irish assistant coach Ryan Humphrey knows.

“Overseas, he's known as a basketball player,” said Humphrey, who made a long living playing professionally in Europe. “He doesn't pass the eye test and doesn't look like the prototypical big, but that makes him special.

“You can measure his arm length and how tall he is, but you can't measure his heart. He just finds a way.”

Now it's time for the captain to also help show the way. That focus started in the summer. Admittedly out of shape when he first arrived as a freshman who labored to play even in short spurts, Colson committed himself to getting into better condition. Early-morning offseason runs twice a week as mandated by strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski helped. So did extra sessions that Colson craved on off days. He traded sports drinks for water. He eliminated cookies and desserts. He made sure to get at least nine hours of sleep a night, give or take a few depending on if he found something good on Netflix.

He's listed at 225 pounds, one pound lighter than his freshman year. But the weight's distributed better. He looks more the part of a confident, chiseled veteran. Time to play like one. Deliver like one.

“You lock into the process and buy into the process and how things work here,” he said. “I know what the expectations are. I want to lead this team and do whatever I can.”

The climb continues.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

2016 Legends Classic

Notre Dame Region

Second round

WHO: Notre Dame (1-0) vs. Seattle (1-1).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Plenty available.

TV: Watch ACC Network.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), audio also available at WatchND.

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

NOTING: Seattle shot 30 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from 3 in a 67-55 loss Monday at Colorado in the first of four road games as part of the Legends Classic. … Senior guard Brendan Westendorf scored a team-high 17 points for the Redhawks, who led by as many as eight. … The Redhawks were outrebounded 55-35. … Seattle opened the season with a home victory over Pacific Lutheran. … The Redhawks finished 15-17 overall, 7-7 and fourth place in the eight-team Western Athletic Conference last season. They lost in the quarterfinals of the postseason College Basketball Invitational. … Seattle has an average Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 280 the last five years. … The Redhawks are coached by Cameron Dollar, who played on the 1995 UCLA national championship squad. Dollar enters his eighth season. … Seattle was picked this preseason to finish tied for fifth in the WAC while Westendorf was a first team all-league selection by vote of conference coaches. … The teams have never met. … Twelve of the 15 Atlantic Coast Conference teams, including Notre Dame, were ranked or received votes in this week’s USA Today Coaches poll.

QUOTING: “It’s easy coaching Bonzie. He grew up around the game. He has great poise and patience. He’s a mismatch problem. I’m trying to get him to really buy into that and take that next step.”

• Irish assistant coach Ryan Humphrey on junior power forward Bonzie Colson.