Noie: Season of struggles for former Irish will show on NBA draft night

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

{child_flags:featured}AN EMPTY

EVENING

{child_byline}By Tom Noie

South Bend Tribune{/child_byline}

This week marks the unofficial start of the 2018-19 Notre Dame men’s basketball season. It’s the time to begin fresh. To move forward.

Veteran players have returned to campus for summer school. The most highly-ranked recruiting class (consensus Top 15) in the 18-year tenure of coach Mike Brey is settled in. New leadership roles were established during pickup games as new guys did new stuff for a program looking to return to its old (winning) ways.

Thursday night offers one final chance to wonder what might have been. For Notre Dame. For two graduated seniors poised to take the next step in their basketball journeys.

Thursday night should have belonged to former Irish power forward Bonzie Colson. To showcase his tailor-made suit and accompanying accessories. To have a table for himself and his agent and his mom and dad and sister on the floor of Barclays Center, an arena that often served as a personal playground. Like when he almost led the Irish to a second Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship in three years despite hobbling around against Duke on a bum ankle in 2017. Or the time he banked in a 3-pointer from an impossible angle against Virginia Tech on the way to erasing a 21-point deficit — largest in school history — in a 2018 second-round ACC tournament win.

Thursday night should have been Colson’s ultimate reward. For arriving on campus a relative unknown who wore thick glasses away from the court and wasn’t very known on it. But he shed some pounds, got serious about his game and took one of the country’s toughest conferences by storm with a steady stream of double doubles for points and rebounds. It was enough for him to earn ACC preseason player of the year heading into his senior season. It should have been enough to be a first team lock at season’s end.

Should have been enough to earn Colson a seat at Barclays as a likely first-round NBA draft pick, someone who tantalized scouts with his maniacal motor when many a metric — size (listed at 6-foot-6, but maybe closer to 6-4), position (small forward or power forward?), vertical leap (not much of one), whatever — said he should struggle.

He should have been the most intriguing prospect in Thursday’s draft. Sorry Luka Doncic, Trae Young, et al. Colson was so unique that he’s the only player in program history with at least 1,600 points (1,632), 900 rebounds (900), 150 blocks (155), 125 steals (125) and 120 assists (122). He did a lot of everything.

But the afternoon of Dec. 29, 2017 happened. One moment in one practice altered the entire direction of Colson’s senior season. Of Notre Dame’s season. When Colson cracked the fifth metatarsal in his left foot, it guaranteed that he wouldn’t wear that snazzy suit, wouldn’t have that VIP table in Barclays, wouldn’t hear his name called in the first round of Thursday’s annual draft, wouldn’t shake the hand of NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

It also all but guaranteed that Notre Dame wouldn’t be headed back to the NCAA tournament for a fourth-straight season. Wouldn’t be on the game’s biggest stage where Colson and fellow senior Matt Farrell could showcase their present games for the future. Oh, the Irish came close — they were No. 69 in the 68-team tournament field — but close doesn’t count. Not for the Irish. Not for Colson. Not for Farrell.

Farrell also hobbled off the Purcell Pavilion floor with his own injury — a serious left ankle turned five days after Colson was hurt. It kept him out of action for five games. Knowing what was at stake — basically everything — Farrell rushed back too early after sitting out three games. He was a shell of his downhill, attacking self for two games before Brey shut him down for two more. Farrell returned in time to earn third team All-ACC, but it wasn’t enough to get the Irish back to where they needed to be — for themselves, for the seniors. Back in the NCAA tournament.

What if Farrell doesn’t get hurt? Notre Dame likely gets to the NCAA tournament and shows enough to become a second-round pick Thursday. and the Farrell family celebration would go all night. All week. Farrell’s numbers across the board this season — even with five games missed — mirror those of former Irish guard Demetrius Jackson during his final year. Farrell averaged more points (16.3 to 15.8) shot it better from 3 (37.7 percent to 33.1) and had more assists (169 to 164). In a lot of ways, Farrell was better than the eventual second-round pick.

March matters

Basketball futures have a tendency to take off when you play well in March. When you succeed in March. See former Irish swingman Pat Connaughton. Or Jackson.

Up until 2015, Connaughton was considered a basketball sideshow — really good player, ultimate team guy, solid skills. But an NBA guy? Baseball was his professional lottery ticket. Then 16 days of March of 2015 unfolded. Connaughton proved he was more than a right-handed pitcher biding his baseball time on the basketball court.

Connaughton tag-teamed with buddy Jerian Grant to drive the Irish to the ACC tournament championship. To three NCAA tournament wins. To the near-miss against Kentucky. When that hoops season ended, it was just beginning for Connaughton. He earned a trip to the Portsmouth Invitational pre-draft showcase. He showed well there. To the NBA combine. He showed even better there. He rode that wave into the draft’s second round. He became an NBA guy. For one year. Then two. Then three.

None of that happens without March. Without the NCAA tournament.

When Jackson helped steer the Irish to a second-straight appearance in the NCAA Elite Eight, it was obvious he was ready to take the next step. Remember his work in the closing minutes of the NCAA game against Wisconsin? Wizard-like. Less than 48 hours after the near-miss against North Carolina in the East Regional final, he was gone. Out of school; on to chasing pro dreams.

None of that happens without March. Without the NCAA tournament.

This season, nothing happened in March or in the NCAA tournament. For Notre Dame. For Colson. For Farrell. As a result, they’re left on the NBA outside looking in.

In Colson and/or Farrell, Thursday could have been a feel-good NBA story for a Notre Dame program that could use one. Grant’s been traded three times and likely will be moved a fourth by point-guard heavy Chicago. Connaughton’s a restricted free agent who’s probably hit his ceiling in Portland given the team’s current guard rotation/salary cap situation. He might have to go elsewhere to get his game where he believes it can go. Jackson’s played 20 total NBA games with three organizations in two seasons. Hard to see him in Philadelphia’s future as the fourth-string point guard for his third.

Healed from a second broken foot suffered in March, Colson was cleared earlier this month to resume basketball activities. He worked out for a handful of teams, including two-time defending champion Golden State. Farrell also has auditioned for teams from Orlando to Los Angeles.

Both likely won’t hear their names called Thursday. Or they may. Anything often goes late in the second round with midnight fast approaching and Tribune deadline long passed. One team may decide to take a flyer on one or the other. Or neither.

Either way, both should get summer-league shots next month. They’ll have to prove they can play. But that’s nothing new. Both did it at Notre Dame. Both can do it again.

Without the NCAA tournament as a slingshot.

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When: Thursday at 7 p.m.

Where: Barclays Center, New York.

TV: ESPN, NBA-TV.

Format: Two rounds with 30 selections in each round

Note: Notre Dame last had a player selected in 2016 when guard Demetrius Jackson went in the second round (No. 45 overall) to the Boston Celtics; The Irish last had a player taken in the first round in 2015 when Jerian Grant went No. 19 to the Washington Wizards.

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Former Irish Bonzie Colson (35) and Matt Farrell (5) each had their senior seasons — and possible team success — affected by injuries.

When: Thursday at 7 p.m.

Where: Barclays Center, New York.

TV: ESPN, NBA-TV.

Format: Two rounds with 30 selections in each round

Note: Notre Dame last had a player selected in 2016 when guard Demetrius Jackson went in the second round (No. 45 overall) to the Boston Celtics; The Irish last had a player taken in the first round in 2015 when Jerian Grant went No. 19 to the Washington Wizards.