Feb. 13, 2017
By John Heisler
There’s a line from one of the songs in the hit movie musical “La La Land” that goes, “And here’s to the fools who dream, crazy as they may seem.”
Maybe there have been some college hoops observers who have been humming those lyrics in their head, wondering how in the world a 6-5, 225-pounder like Notre Dame junior Bonzie Colson could ever survive–much less prosper–while spending most of his time operating around the lane for the Irish men’s basketball team.
But Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is looking awfully prescient these days after Colson contributed 27 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots against Wake Forest last week and then followed that performance with another bonanza–33 points and 13 rebounds in a Saturday victory over 14 th-rated Florida State, then atop the Atlantic Coast Conference standings. All that combined to earn Colson the ACC Basketball Player of the Week honor today–and NCAA.com named him to its five-player All-Week team.
Colson leads the ACC with 16 double-doubles (nine in conference play) this season. He also paces the ACC in rebounding (10.8) and has six 20/10 games this year (tied for best in the league). No player near Colson’s size has led the league in rebounding since 6-6 Pete Brennan did it for North Carolina in 1958.
The Irish today stand as the 20th-ranked team in the USA Today poll of coaches with a smallish starting lineup featuring senior wings Steve Vasturia (6-6) and V.J. Beachem (6-8)–both more comfortable at the three-point line than in the paint–while Colson does all the dirty work inside, generally with great success and often against defenders multiple inches taller than he is.
An unlikely scenario? Maybe.
Yet the Irish under Brey have seldom featured a “traditional” lineup, often favoring a perimeter shooting bent to their style.
Here’s how Brey and his staff found their latest gem and decided Colson–even at 6-5–could make it work no matter where on the court he was left to operate:
“We’re out at the Nike EYBL event in Anaheim in April of his junior year. I’m watching a game and Martin (Ingelsby, then an Irish assistant and now head coach at Delaware) is sitting with me,” says Notre Dame’s head coach.
“Martin leaves to go watch another game on another court, and he says, `Hey, Coach, while you’re sitting here, see the kid playing on the next court down with BABC (Boston Amateur Basketball Club)? Just watch him–he’s intriguing. He just gets stuff done. I don’t know what position he plays, but he just is efficient.’
“So I’m watching him and he gets a tip-in, then I watch a little more and he hits a 15-footer. Then he gets an offensive rebound against some big guys–the stuff he’s doing now. I glanced over and watched him maybe six times.
“So we go to dinner that night and I said, `Martin, you’re right, he is intriguing. Make sure I watch him twice tomorrow,’ which was the last day. So I watched two of his games, and I thought, `He’s really growing on me.’
“And we have a lot of guys who don’t have a position. We’ve built a program like that. What position was (Luke) Harangody? What was Pat Connaughton? We get basketball players and we figure it out.
“I knew the bloodlines. The dad (Bonzie Sr., a former Rhode Island standout) is a D.C. guy from Dunbar (High School), so he and I still have arguments about that. His dad was on Al Skinner’s staff at Boston College, so Bonzie’s been around the gym his whole life.”
Ed Cooley coached with Bonzie’s father at Boston College and is godfather to Bonzie’s sister. So when Cooley took over as Providence head coach, that seemed a potential destination for the younger Colson. But by the end of the summer, it came down to Notre Dame and Florida State.
“Leo Papile runs BABC, he’s a long-time AAU guy and a (Boston) Celtics scout–he’s been around a while,” says Brey. “He’s watched our program, and he was talking to us, going `He’s your kind of guy.’ And he was right. He was selling it as a great fit, and we agreed.
“I remember Bonzie’s dad saying to me, `Coach, I was taught to hate you guys (as a former Boston College coach), but I’m coming around, just work with me here.’
“You could see him as a face-up four, a little like Connaughton. He played away from the bucket a lot in high school. He would make plays and he would drive it.
“The Nike Elite Youth Basketball League has most of the best players. They do six or seven tournaments through the spring and summer and they do analytics. He (Colson) was the number one guy in overall efficiency and he was playing against all the dudes he plays against now. And he was doing it. We kept coming back that summer to think, `He’s doing it against the Nike circuit.’
“He’s had to play with a chip on his shoulder, against bigger dudes, pro lottery pick guys, guys that people just thought were better than him.
“His approach is, `Who’s coming at me today? I’m a junk-yard dog. I’m gonna do it.'”
ESPN’s Dick Vitale lauded Colson’s production during the win over Florida State: “You talk about a player who gets the most out of his body and size. I’ll tell you, he knows how to finish.”
There are times Brey looks back now and wonders how he didn’t start playing Colson sooner at Notre Dame.
“It took me a while to put him in a game. But it’s 25 practices into the preseason in his freshman year and we’re charting everything. He’s the second leading rebounder in practice behind Zach (Auguste), he’s right there on all the efficiency stuff just like he was in the EYBL and we’re going, `He’s getting it done, especially battling in the paint and getting his hands on the ball and making plays.’ He’s always charted out amazingly.
“The biggest jumps he’s made this year–and I saw it during the summer–are his passing and his three-point shot. People are doubling him and running at him, and he’s passing it. I always felt the three-point shot would be part of the arsenal for him because he had a good stroke, and now he’s starting to feel that.
“There’s no question that us playing five out and playing smaller for most of the game helps him because he has all that room in the lane and down low. He’s handling the ball every two or three passes–and it’s helped the big four (Colson, Vasturia, Beachem and Matt Farrell) and it’s really helped him because the spacing is really good. He’s got his guy out on the perimeter and there’s more room to operate.”
Brey remembers early in Bonzie’s freshman season when the Irish played in the Hall of Fame Tip Off in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Irish beat UMass and then lost to Providence–and Colson didn’t play in either game
Later that same 2014-15 season in a mid-January matchup at Georgia Tech, classmate Martinas Geben earned a start with Auguste out. Gebben played six scoreless minutes, while Colson came off the bench to play 22 minutes and score 10 points.
“He energized everybody, he helps us win the game and the rest is history,” says Brey.
“He’s a big moment guy.”
“Here’s to the ones who dream” – there’s that La La Land line again.
It sounds pleasingly prophetic to Brey now.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Irish athletic scene as a member of the athletics communication staff since 1978. Look for his weekly Sunday Brunch pieces on UND.com.