Noie: Gut punch x 10: Notre Dame PF Bonzie Colson to miss eight weeks with broken foot

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Gut punches lurked somewhere along the Atlantic Coast Conference road for a Notre Dame team that had already absorbed its share.

But nobody expected the latest one to hurt so hard, to cut so deep, to affect almost everything that this team does. The one player that this Notre Dame men’s basketball program could ill afford to lose to injury, it just lost. For eight weeks. Maybe for the rest of the season. The rest of his collegiate career.

Early Tuesday evening, Notre Dame announced via Twitter that the team’s leading scorer, its leading rebounder, its heartbeat, its soul — senior power forward Bonzie Colson — had suffered a fractured left foot in practice. It happened Sunday or Monday — no details were provided by Notre Dame beyond the announcement. Surgery is scheduled for Thursday.

With Colson, Notre Dame had enough to chase a top-four ACC finish and a double bye in the league tournament. Without Colson, it may be a middle-of-the-road outfit. Behind a core of seniors Matt Farrell and Martinas Geben, junior Rex Pflueger and sophomore T.J. Gibbs, it will win some games, but likely lose more with as challenging a league schedule as it's ever been handed.

Life preservers anyone?

With Colson, there were dreams of a deep NCAA tournament run. Second weekend. Third weekend. Players dared to dream of the school’s first Final Four since 1978. That was one of the dreams that steered Colson back to Notre Dame for his senior season.

Without Colson, getting into the field of 68 — even getting a trip to the First Four in Dayton, Ohio — would be an accomplishment.

Without Colson, power forwards Elijah Burns and John Mooney have to offer far more than their past performances. Freshman swingman D.J. Harvey and sophomore guard Nikola Djogo get to grow their games as rotation regulars. The lineup combinations will be interesting. So will be the growing pains.

Backed against the proverbial wall? This one pushes Mike Brey and the Irish through it and the one next door. Not even 72 hours into the New Year, and the Irish are starting over. From scratch. Ready to run a race without their prized horse.

Notre Dame (11-3; 1-0 ACC) returns to action Wednesday at home against North Carolina State (10-4; 0-1). One more win sees Brey become the winningest coach in program history. Five more sees the senior class — Colson’s class — become the winningest in school history.

A season that held such promise now hangs by a pretty thin thread. AN unproven thread. Notre Dame’s likely not playing for an ACC tournament championship for a third time in the last four years without Colson. It’s not going back to the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight season.

What hurts is that Colson had just ripped off his best basketball of the season. Through the first 11 games, he was good, but far from great. He averaged 20.4 points, and 9.7 rebounds in 33.3 minutes. He shot 52.5 percent from the field, 23.1 percent from 3 and 76.9 percent from the foul line.

Over the last three games, Colson’s numbers spiked across the board. He averaged 25 points and 12.6 rebounds in 34.6 minutes. He shot 52.7 percent from the field, 55.5 percent from 3 and 92.3 percent from the foul line. He earned his only league player of the week honors after scoring a career-high 37 points Dec. 19 against Dartmouth. He made a run at another honor last week after tying his career best of 17 rebounds against Georgia Tech. Nobody racked up as many efficiency points since practices commenced in October.

He was a machine.

Colson averaged 21.4 points and 10.4 rebounds - both team highs - in 14 games. The five main Irish reserves, who all need to do a lot more the next two months, averaged a combined 12.3 points and 8.7 rebounds.

Something didn’t seem right regarding Colson during Tuesday’s media availability. Often one of the first out of the locker room and onto the Purcell Pavilion floor for interviews, Colson was deemed unavailable by a team spokesman. Colson was said to have been “worn down” by recent media obligations and also was receiving additional treatment in the training room for overall game-related body soreness.

Three minutes before the start of practice, there still was no sign of Colson. That was odd. Odd enough that the Tribune even asked a team spokesman if Colson was healthy enough to play against North Carolina State.

The answer was yes.

That changed dramatically some two and a half hours later. Colson's not fine. Might not be for a long time.

An expected eight-week recovery window puts his return during the week of Feb. 26. That would leave him two regular-season games — the home finale against Pittsburgh and the regular-season finale at Virginia —before the start of the ACC tournament, something the Irish might just have to win to keep alive their run of three straight NCAA tournament appearances.

If Colson cannot return, his collegiate career is over. He ventured too deeply into his senior season to be eligible for a medical hardship and return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame’s been down this road before — losing the one guy it could ill-afford to — at a critical point in the season, regardless of reason. The last time it happened, it didn’t end well.

Four years ago last month, former Irish guard Jerian Grant announced that he would be separated from the university for the spring semester following an “academic misstep.” Without him, Notre Dame staggered through its first run through the ACC, one that saw the Irish go 15-17 overall, 6-12 and tied for 11th in the league.

It was the lone losing record and the only time Notre Dame failed to play in postseason during Brey’s 18-year tenure.

Losing a key contributor to injury at a tough time also is nothing new for Brey at Notre Dame. In 2009-10, power forward Luke Harangody was on track to finish his career as the leading scorer and rebounder in school history. He then suffered a bone bruise during a February game at Seton Hall and missed five games. Notre Dame recovered in time to win six in a row and get back to the NCAA tournament.

In 2011-12, former power forward Tim Abromaitis suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in practice the day after Thanksgiving. Notre Dame would finish 13-5, including a school record nine consecutive wins, in the Big East. They went back to the NCAA tournament against pretty long odds.

Those teams found solutions in time to enjoy success. This one might. If Notre Dame does, it would be Brey’s greatest magic trick. Losing Colson and his 32 career double-doubles and his 1,500-plus career points and 800-plus career rebounds is as close to a knockout punch as it gets. The Irish are in need of some smelling salts. They’ll gladly take a standing-eight count and may need a few weeks to figure it all out. They may find their legs and maybe even clear the cobwebs in time to seriously compete.

They’ll continue the ACC fight. There’s no other choice. But the early return? What was expected to be a tough go just got a whole lot tougher. With Colson, the Irish thought they had enough answers.

Now? Maybe too many questions.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson will miss the next eight weeks after suffering a fractured left foot in practice this week. (AP File Photo/DARRON CUMMINGS)

WHO: Notre Dame (11-3; 1-0 ACC) vs. North Carolina State (10-4; 0-1).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Wednesday at 9 p.m.

TICKETS: Available. All upper-arena seats have been reduced to $15 per ticket.

TV: WMYS.

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

NOTING: Former Ohio State signee Braxton Beverly scored 15 points in Saturday’s conference opener, a 78-62 loss at Clemson. It was State’s first true road game. The Wolfpack led by as many as six and finished with a (+5) rebounding advantage. … Picked in preseason to finish 12th, North Carolina State returns six players off last year’s team that finished 15-17, 4-14 and tied for 13th last season. … Its win total has slipped from 22 to 16 to 15 the last three seasons. … North Carolina State has non-league wins over Arizona and Penn State. … The Wolfpack remains without starting point guard Markell Johnson, who leads the league in steals (2.4), following his arrest last month for felonious assault charges in his hometown of Cleveland. … Former Louisville assistant Kevin Keatts is in his first season at State after the last three at North Carolina Wilmington, where he averaged 24 wins, including 29 last season. … North Carolina State leads the all-time series 7-4. … The Wolfpack is coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1994-95. … Notre Dame looks to open 2-0 in ACC play for the second-straight season and third time in five seasons.

QUOTING: "We are all feeling for Bonzie right now, who was performing as well as any player in the country. We need to embrace this challenge. This program has lost key guys before and we figured out a way to earn an NCAA bid."

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on the fractured left foot suffered by Bonzie Colson.