Notre Dame senior Bonzie Colson won't change basketball beliefs as a marked man

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

When he was a freshman finding his place in the college basketball world, he stayed true to two beliefs.

Play hungry. Stay humble.

When he bulldozed his way into the rotation that year following an inspiring midseason effort in Atlanta despite a bloody nose and bruised face, he stayed true to two beliefs.

Play hungry. Stay humble.

When his game and his name rocketed into an elite hoops orbit over the last two seasons after putting together steady strings of double doubles for points and rebounds, he stayed true to his two beliefs.

Play hungry. Stay humble.

So as Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson begins a senior season with enormous expectations for himself and the Irish, he’ll remain true to two beliefs.

Play hungry. Stay humble.

Little about Colson has changed since he arrived unsure of himself and far from peak playing shape three years ago. Yet everything about how he’s viewed has changed almost from the minute last year ended. Colson’s no longer one of the game’s biggest curiosity stories for how he continues to put up big numbers (1,218 points and 688 rebounds in 2,452 minutes over 104 career games) while undersized (6-foot-6, 224 pounds) at one of the game’s most demanding positions in its most challenging of conferences.

Everybody seemingly now knows his name. And his game.

Pick up a 2017-18 preseason publication and you can’t get too deep into the pages and predictions before you spot Notre Dame’s No. 35. He’s an Atlantic Coast Conference first team lock. First team preseason All-American lock. A potential league player of the year if he can push past that Tobacco Road bias. Even a serious contender for national player of the year.

Colson could become a larger than life presence on college basketball’s biggest stage. In some ways, he’s already there. But he doesn’t seek the attention. Doesn’t crave the adulation. Won’t chase it. Pains him to even acknowledge it. He just wants to go to work and get buckets and rebounds and wins.

“You just play your game and can’t let any of it get to your head,” Colson said Thursday during the team’s annual media day at Purcell Pavilion. “You have to stay humble and hungry.”

Sometimes easier said than done. Like earlier this month. Instead of being the sure and steady senior that everyone around the program has come to count on, Colson competed as if he were on skates. The more Colson tried, and the more the ball failed to find the hoop, the more he pressed. And pressed. For someone who has long played so freely, so purely, it looked as if Colson was playing to make good on all the accolades.

A career .537 percent shooter, Colson made maybe 30 percent of his shots through a long first five days of preseason practice.

“He was feeling it,” coach Mike Brey said of the preseason hype. “He wasn’t very good.”

Not very good perhaps because everyone from every angle has been telling him how good he is for the last few months. If Colson wanted to get his game back in gear, he’d have to get back to being the guy he was as an underclassman. The guy whose work demanded that Brey find minutes (12.1 per game that year) for him on a team that won the ACC Tournament championship and nearly got to the Final Four.

Be that guy, Brey counseled Colson, that guy who played with something to prove after being a recruiting afterthought — he chose Notre Dame over Florida State — coming out of prep school, and everything will slide right back into place.

“I said, ‘You know, you’ve always been the underdog, and for the first time, you’re not the underdog,’” Brey said. “You’re a player of the year candidate. You’re talked about, but you still gotta play like (the underdog).

“You’ve got to get into that frame of mind.”

Teammates also noticed that Colson wasn’t doing Colson stuff in those early sessions. His closest friend and classmate and roommate, someone who can read him as well as anyone, guard Matt Farrell, helped shake Colson out of his October funk.

Sometimes, all it takes is a look from one to get the other in gear. This time, Farrell, a player of few words, needed some of them to make a point.

Forget about all the All-American talk. Forget about player of the year this and player of the year that. Just be Bonzie Colson, the ultimate lunch-pail guy who just keeps competing.

“I’m always telling him, make the game easy,” Farrell said. “Those first couple practices, he was kind of not focused and was thinking about all that.

“He plays a lot better when he makes the game easy.”

Colson insists all along that it remained easy. That he wasn’t playing to prove his worth. That he wasn’t worried about the hype. That he just was in a slump, something that a couple late nights in The Pit, when he made 1,000 shots in each session, could fix.

And did.

Once he started feeling better about his shot, the rest of his game followed. He was back on the backboard. Chasing down loose balls. Getting deflections. Guarding. Defending. Talking. Hustling.

Colson was Colson again.

“It just clicked for him,” said junior guard Rex Pflueger. “Once he realized that he doesn’t have to play for all the accolades and everything he’s been getting, that he just needs to be Bonzie Colson and play his game, he’s going to be that All-American player that everyone says he’s going to be.”

Third time a charm?

The national expectation road that Colson will travel this season is relatively new at Notre Dame. Now in his 18th season, Brey only twice has had a returning player garner as much preseason hype as Colson. Both times, the end result didn’t end well.

In 2000-01, Brey’s first season, power forward Troy Murphy was a preseason All-American. He helped lead the Irish to a Big East West Division championship and earned a second-straight league player of the year honor. He was a key reason the Irish returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 seasons. But the burden of being the guy night have night took a toll. By March, Murphy was fried.

Seven years later, another power forward, Luke Harangody, started out on everybody’s All-American list. He also stepped outside of his production bubble and started playing more of a perimeter game with the belief that’s what NBA scouts wanted to see. Harangody suffered a bone bruise to his right knee late in the year and missed five games. His career ended quietly as a reserve on a team that came from nowhere without him to get to the NCAA Tournament.

Everything that both former Irish endured awaits Colson. At home. On the road. It’s something he’ll have to handle. Brey plans to help him, and will often employ a similar catch-phrase.

Enjoy the journey.

“That’s a process,” he said. “There’s going to be times when he’s feeling the weight of the world.”

Colson understands how far his game as come. And the expectations now attached to his name. He’s no longer a feel-good story, the underrated kid with a big smile who made it big. Now he’s “BONZIE COLSON!!” He’s expected to score and rebound and rebound and score. Every game. Every night. Against everyone.

“I wasn’t expecting all of this,” he said. “It caught me off-guard (but) it’s a blessing.”

Colson can't allow it to become a curse. A long season of lofty expectations awaits. Colson and Farrell and Pflueger and Brey have the Irish poised to chase an ACC Championship. To go deep in the NCAA Tournament. To take it a step past the Elite Eight, a place that Colson has visited twice in his collegiate career.

Can the Irish be good? Can Colson?

“Who are you going to be when the lights are bright? Who are you going to be when you need a bucket or things are going bad and you’re down 10?” Colson wondered. “Those are the moments that show who you really are as a player.”

Who does Colson plan to be?

“I’m just going to be me,” he said. “Nothing’s changed.”

Still hungry. Still humble.


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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Who: Holy Cross vs. Notre Dame (exhibition)

When: Friday at 7 p.m.

Where: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

Admission: Free

Radio: None.

TV: None.

Note: Fans attending Friday's game will be given envelopes when they arrive for hurricane relief donations, which will help Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education parishes in need. Donation envelopes will be collected during the first half's eight-minute media timeout.