Noie: Quite the winning basketball ride for Notre Dame senior class

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Nobody saw this level of college basketball success coming, not from this trio whose additions created barely a recruiting ripple.

They arrived at Notre Dame on the heels of a forgettable season, the program’s first in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In time, each crafted unforgettable careers highlighted by big numbers and big moments. Each did it in their own way. It took time. Patience. Perseverance.

But each one got there.

One stepped into the spotlight as a sophomore. And delivered. Another fought the urge to transfer before becoming a main guy as a junior. And delivered. The third, given up at times as someone who just wasn’t ever going to get it, finally did as a senior. And delivered.

One-and-dones dominate today’s college basketball landscape, but the Notre Dame senior class of Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell and Martinas Geben forever will be remembered by a different catch-phrase.

Won and done.

As in, won a lot, done a lot.

On Wednesday, the three, along with former walk-on Matt Gregory and graduate student Austin Torres play their final regular-season home game on Senior Night when Notre Dame (17-12; 7-9 ACC) hosts Pittsburgh (8-22; 0-17). It’s a big night in myriad ways – the return of Colson to the starting lineup, the chance to still chase down a break-even record in league play, which would be monumental given this season, the opportunity to keep headed in the right direction by winning for the fifth time in the last seven games after losing seven straight.

How will the three make sure execution overrides any and all emotion?

“The same we’ve handled the whole season – make the most out of it,” Geben said. “We’ve got to make it special.”

Special also can describe this class. For who they became. For what they did. And they did a lot.

Their first year on campus, coming off a 15-17 season, 6-12 in the ACC, Notre Dame went 32-6 and 14-4. It won at North Carolina for the first time in school history. Won the school’s first ACC tournament championship. Advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003 and went to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979. Came within one bucket and one win of getting to the Final Four for the first time since 1978.

And they had three years remaining. How could they possibly top that?

They sure tried.

Figuring it all out would come in different stages for each player. Colson racked up plenty of DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) early in his first year before stepping into the rotation at midseason and never again stepping out. Eventually, he’d become, BONZIE COLSON!!, a double-double machine for points and rebounds and league player of the year/All-American candidate. Farrell had one foot – maybe one and a half – out the transfer door late in his sophomore season before he stepped into the starting lineup in, of all places, the NCAA tournament. Never again would he think of leaving.

Both would score over 1,000 career points, play over 100 games and log over 2,400 minutes. Colson’s grabbed 833 rebounds. Farrell’s at 374 assists.

Their second year saw Notre Dame win at Duke for the first time in school history, and then get back to the Elite Eight for a second-straight season. That hadn’t happened since consecutive runs in 1978 and 1979. They were again among the elite of the ACC.

As juniors, they were part of a program that won the Legends Classic early-season tournament championship, again finished in the top four of the ACC and again played in the league tournament title game for a second time in three seasons. Think about that. Them. Notre Dame. Playing for a league tournament championship twice. In three years. Nobody would have believed it when they arrived in June 2014.

“We just worked; we grinded,” Colson said. “We never counted each other out. We just got better each year.”

Like Geben. Especially Geben. He was a rotation afterthought his first two seasons. Played a little more as a junior but bounced around trying to find a role. Was he best as a starter? A reserve? There was no concrete answer. Coming into this season, he vowed back in the summer to play so well, to be who he could be, that he would be able to graduate in the spring with no regrets.

He might not have any after delivering his most productive season for points (11.3), rebounds (8.0) and minutes (25.0). He’s a serious candidate – and really deserves to win if not for the likely Tobacco Road voting influence that may hand it to North Carolina’s Luke Maye – for the league’s most improved.

As Colson and Farrell missed chunks of practices and games with injuries, Geben has remained the one constant. He started. He played. He delivered. Like the two free throws in the closing seconds to help Notre Dame win the Maui Jim Maui Invitational in November. Like Saturday with 22 points, 14 rebounds and five dunks in the road win against Wake Forest.

This season saw Notre Dame climb as high as No. 5 in the national rankings and win at Syracuse for the first time in a decade.

“We’ve done a lot; we saw a lot,” Geben said. “It’s been really special. We’ve all enjoyed the ride.”

These guys may not have been the best of the best at Notre Dame, but they’ve been really good. Individually at times. Collectively at others.

“They’ve all been a part of spoiling themselves and spoiling all of us,” coach Mike Brey said. “They weren’t McDonald’s All-Americans. They were four-year guys that were going to hang in there and get better with us.”

Along the way, they set a mark that few figured would ever be within reach. When Notre Dame rode Farrell’s career-high 37 points 11 days ago to win at Boston College, it was victory No. 98 for the group. That’s a school record. No senior class has won more games (now 99 and counting) than this one.

That’s mind-boggling. This class, one that was ranked 10th in the ACC and 55th nationally by one recruiting service, stands alone in their own winning way.

“It’s pretty surreal,” said Gregory, who earned a scholarship last summer. “It’s been unbelievable.”

“It’s a great mark,” Colson said. “We really helped develop the culture a little more.”

The group will work through a range of emotions just before tip-off. They’ll walk to center court arm-and-arm with their families. There will be hugs. Tears. Video tributes on the video board. A quick roll through the Rolodex of all the memories on the court. Off of it. The good times and maybe even some of the bad. It’s difficult for them to digest that it’s all flown by. That it’s all going to be over. Soon.

“It’s going to be pretty emotional,” Farrell said. “It should be a real special night.”

And if the last four years are any indication, it should be one that ends in familiar fashion.

With a win.

Another one.

Done.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (17-12; 7-9 ACC) vs. Pittsburgh (8-22; 0-17)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ESPNU.

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: Notre Dame enters the regular season’s final week tied for 11th place in the ACC with Syracuse. The Irish would earn the tie-breaker based on head-to-head competition. Notre Dame would open ACC tournament play Tuesday at 2 p.m. against No. 15 Pittsburgh. The winner would get No. 7 Louisville. … The Panthers have lost 17 in a row – all in ACC play – since last winning on Dec. 22. … Pittsburgh was held to seven points in the first half of Saturday’s 66-37 home loss to No. 1 Virginia. … Fourteen of the Panthers’ 17 league losses have been by double digits. … A loss would mark the second time since 2016 (Boston College) that a team has gone winless in ACC play. … Pittsburgh ranks last in the league in scoring offense (62.2), scoring margin (-10.4), field goal percentage (.409), rebounds (31.3), rebounding margin (-5.9), steals (4.43), turnover margin (-3.77) and assist/turnover margin (0.88). … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 32-30 overall, 17-11 at home and 1-3 as ACC colleagues. … This is the first meeting between the teams in 424 days. Notre Dame and Pittsburgh opened ACC play with an Irish overtime victory on Dec. 31, 2016 at Petersen Events Center. … An Irish win would be No. 400 for Mike Brey during his 18 seasons in South Bend.

QUOTING: “Coach Brey has done an amazing job with his team. The whole conference season has been a struggle for us.”

-Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings.