Noie: Notre Dame needs Bonzie Colson back, but not at any basketball cost

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Suggestions seldom were solicited from the one person who held the final say, the one person who never strayed from the original scripted schedule.

When Notre Dame lost senior power forward Bonzie Colson to a broken left foot in early January, one that required surgery and needed an eight-week window to heal, coach Mike Brey said then that the earliest the team’s leading scorer (21.4) and rebounder (10.4) could return would be Senior Night. That arrives Wednesday against league cellar-dweller Pittsburgh.

But the more Colson was seen shooting around before games, the more he was seen on the sideline during games wildly waving his arms at key moments and coaching up his teammates, the more the Irish were backed into a must-win corner, the feeling was that the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason player of the year would be back from injury sooner than later.

Like say, Saturday, eight days away from the end of the regular season as Notre Dame (16-12; 6-9 ACC) sits tied for 11th place in the league and needs three wins over its last three regular-season games to get to 9-9 in league play. No better way to try and get there than with Colson, who privately promised to return ahead of Brey’s timetable.

With Colson back doing what Colson does, maybe Notre Dame wins Saturday at Wake Forest (11-17; 4-12) and Wednesday at home and again next week at No. 1 Virginia to muster needed momentum for the league tournament in Brooklyn.

But Brey’s not willing to mortgage Colson’s future for any present success. Colson did some work in practice Thursday afternoon. By Thursday night, Brey reiterated during his weekly radio show the original schedule stance. Colson will not play Saturday at Wake Forest. He might be back Wednesday for Senior Night.

Might.

Brey also said that there’s a chance that Colson doesn’t return. Not next week. Not next month. Not ever.

“It’s a huge loss not having him,” Brey said Thursday night on his radio show. “When he’s ready, he’ll come back, but not before that. We won’t rush him.”

Colson confirmed that he’s just not ready to play.

“Condition-wise, I still have to get in better shape,” he said.

That Colson’s not ready is pretty easy for the Irish to take, especially since Brey never planned to fast-track his return. He doesn’t want to jeopardize Colson’s push toward a professional basketball career, which shifts into overdrive the minute the curtain closes on what’s been a trying season. For Brey. For Colson. For the Irish.

Colson was cleared this week to resume basketball activities, something he hasn’t done since Dec. 28 – the day he felt something pop in his left foot while practicing. Surgery was done the next week and every subsequent follow-up x-ray has come back clean. He spent the last eight weeks keeping his conditioning up as best he could through limited cardio work with strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski. But pedaling away on the stationary bike and pounding away on the zero gravity treadmill is child’s play compared to battling on the block in the ACC. And battle he would.

“That’s what worries me about bringing him back too soon,” Brey said. “He only knows one way to play.”

For that reason, Brey’s not budging. Even Colson admitted Thursday night on the head coach’s radio show that he needs more than a practice or two or three to be ready. He’s just not ready. Colson said he has some mobility issues with his ankle, but was not concerned. The more he’s on the practice floor, the more it will come around. Getting one day of practice before playing was too much to expect. Not this soon.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s a long and steady process right now.”

Starting with Colson, it’s been a consistent conga line of injuries for the Irish. Saturday will be the 15th game that he’s missed. His classmate and roommate and closest friend on campus, guard Matt Farrell, missed five with left ankle issues. Freshman swingman D.J. Harvey’s been down for nine. Brey ruled him out for the rest of the season with a left knee issue.

What happened eight days ago with Harvey likely plays a role with what happens over the next eight with Colson.

Scheduled to miss a month after originally hurt Jan. 16, Harvey insisted he was fine and planned a return last week at Boston College. Harvey re-injured the knee in practice the night before, then admitted to Brey that he might not have been as upfront as needed about how much the knee still hurt before the second injury. He felt he needed to return as soon as he could and tried to do so while masking any lingering soreness. It cost him the rest of the season and likely a chunk of the offseason.

Harvey is scheduled for surgery next week in Chicago to address what Brey termed a “cartilage issue.” The rehabilitation road is a long one.

Brey doesn’t want Colson to travel the same path – out, then in, then out again. For good.

Seeing No. 35 taped up and dressed in uniform and back on the floor Saturday would have brought back some much-needed sense of normalcy. All won’t be right again in the Irish basketball world, but it would have been close. With only three guaranteed games left, close could have been good enough.

For Brey. For the Irish. For Colson. For everyone. Not going to happen, even if the end of the regular season is in sight.

“Time’s very limited,” said senior power forward Martinas Geben. “We’re fired up to make the most of it.”

And make the most of it without their top scorer, their top rebounder, their top player. At least one more game.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson (35) celebrates after his team went on a big run during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Georgia Tech, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

WHO: Notre Dame (16-12; 6-9 ACC) vs. Wake Forest (11-17; 4-12)

WHERE: Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum (14,665), Winston-Salem, N.C.

WHEN: Saturday at 3 p.m.

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: With Notre Dame tied for 11th place in the league and Wake Forest in 14th, this would be a first-round ACC tournament matchup. … Wake Forest is coming off Wednesday’s 63-57 victory at Pittsburgh, its first on the road in league play. Guard Bryant Crawford led Wake with 14 points and six rebounds. … All four of the Deacons’ league wins have come on Wednesdays. They’ve won two of their last three after losing 10 of 11. … Wake Forest averages 71.1 ppg., in league play and allows 76.3. … The Demon Deacons return two starters off last year’s team that finished 19-14 overall, 9-9 and tied for 10th in the ACC. Wake Forest lost in the NCAA’s First Four. … Notre Dame is 4-3 all-time against Wake Forest, including four-straight wins. The Irish haven’t lost to the Deacons since the opening round of the 2014 ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. … Wake Forest is 3-5 at home in league play with wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech and Syracuse. Saturday is the team’s Senior Day. … The Irish have lost their three league games in North Carolina this season by an average of 19 points.

QUOTING: “We know for sure now these last three (games) are a must-win. We’ve gotta get all three. We’ve got tough guys; we’ve been through a lot. We’ll be all right.”

-Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell.