Last night, Duke rode Marvin Bagley’s monster 33-point, 17-rebound performance to an easy win over Notre Dame in the third round of the ACC tournament.
This season will likely mark the first time since 2014 that Mike Brey’s team will miss the NCAA tournament. We’re still a few days and an untold amount of turmoil from Selection Sunday, but going 8-10 in conference play tends to land your ass in the NIT, and Brey’s already accepted it. For the Fighting Irish, this season has been particularly humbling, which is a testament to the caliber of program Brey’s built in South Bend. More to the point, last night’s blowout was likely the last time a major audience will get to see Bonzie Colson suit up for the Fighting Irish. Duke fans are all breathing a sigh of relief today at that fact, which is how you know that it’s a damn shame.
The No. 1 reason for Notre Dame’s disappointing year is Colson’s left foot. The New Bedford, Mass., native underwent surgery on Jan. 4 after breaking it in practice, and while the Fighting Irish managed to eke out a 51-49 win over Syracuse two days later they wouldn’t win again for a full month; Boston College mercifully allowed them to end their skid on Feb. 6. By the time Colson came back for Senior Night on Feb. 28, Notre Dame was 18-12—essentially, in tournament terms, a porcupine sitting on a balloon. They would need an ACC tournament title in order to send the team’s two seniors, Colson and guard Matt Farrell, to the Big Dance one last time. Grayson Allen and Bagley took care of that Thursday night.
Duke and Notre Dame isn’t quite a rivalry, for reasons of geography and conference rejiggering among others. But since Notre Dame joined the ACC in 2013, the two teams have played a number of close, often highly entertaining games. Brey, a former assistant for the Blue Devils, was hired by the Fighting Irish in 2000; since then, he’s taken them to 12 tournaments, three Sweet 16s, and two Elite Eights and has recently produced some of the most beautiful small-ball teams among the major conferences. And since joining the ACC, he’s had his mentor’s number—Brey is 5-5 against the Blue Devils since 2014. A significant portion of that success stems from the fact that Brey just so happened the perfect anti-Duke weapon in Colson.
Colson was and is an undersized five that can do damn near everything on the court—a college-scale Draymond Green with great vision, a knack for well-timed cuts to the lane, and a soft touch near the rim and from mid-range. Most importantly, at least as it relates to giving Duke hell, Colson has to go down as one of the greatest zone-busters in the modern game.
See, every year, Duke starts off playing man defense. Then, if the current group can’t figure out how to switch on a dang screen, head coach Mike Krzyzewski bags it and goes to the zone—it happened with the 2015 championship team and it’s resurfaced with this year’s team. They’re markedly better that way this year—Synergy Sports reported on Jan. 23 that Duke allowed “.78 points per possession while playing zone and .84 points per possession while playing man-to-man.” But ask Colson and his 7-foot wingspan about that zone and see if it doesn’t elicit a smirk.
Because he’s played meaningful minutes for the Fighting Irish for four years, Colson feels like he’s been around forever—in spirit but not hairline, he’s very close to Perry Ellis and Jevon Carter territory. But Colson’s history of killing Blue Devils dates back a mere four years, to his freshman season under Brey. Then, he was a high-energy freshman good for 12 minutes and 5.6 points per game off the bench; in the ACC semifinal clash against Jahlil Okafor (he was amazing then, okay) and No. 2 seed Duke, Colson was fucking unstoppable, a ruthlessly efficient monster from every spot inside the three-point line. I was covering that game and I remember exchanging raised-eyebrow looks with a fellow reporter when Colson drained his first six shots and two free throws to start the game. The dude didn’t miss until there was 1:53 left in the first half. A reminder when you watch the following video: Colson is 6-foot-6 and was maybe 215 pounds at the time, but because Brey wanted to shut down Tyus Jones, Matt Jones, and Quinn Cook on the three-point line, Colson guarded Okafor, who was 6-foot-11, 270 pounds; Colson did so all by himself when Zach Auguste wasn’t in the game. (Okafor was great, for the record, and scored 28.)
Notre Dame, a three-seed—one that also happened to be 28-5—won the conference tourney that year, knocking off UNC the next day. In the NCAA tournament, the Fighting Irish made an impressive run that only ended when they ran into a legendary and then-undefeated Kentucky team; even then, the Wildcats needed a batshit final two minutes to edge them out in the Elite Eight. From there, Colson doubled his minutes and scoring in his sophomore season and fully stepped into the sixth-man role. He got much better at killing Duke, too—his 31-point outing off the bench in a 94-91 win at Cameron Indoor still sits as third-best game scoring-wise.
The Irish went back to the Elite Eight that year, ultimately getting bounced by the Tar Heels. By his junior season, Colson was a bona fide All-American, averaging a 17 and 10 as a starter and rocketing to the top of everyone’s favorite player lists. No longer was he just the secret weapon against Duke and the solid sixth-man. Colson was a star, but his supporting cast changed. The Fighting Irish as a team started to realize the holes left the departures of Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant wouldn’t be so easily filled. In those two, Brey had two guards that could square up on defense and score on drives, pick-and-pops, and one-on-one long balls. Colson still had three-point specialist Steve Vasturia by his side, but without the dynamic shot-creators, Notre Dame’s well-oiled machine slowed.
That same issue was basically repeated this year, both while Colson was playing in the nonconference slate and during the dismal ACC schedule when Notre Dame was without him. The lead quote from Brey on Colson’s Notre Dame bio reads “Bonzie needs to do a little bit of everything for us this year.” When he went down, so did Notre Dame’s chances. The Fighting Irish team of three and four years ago is gone, at least until Brey reloads. Colson’s been great since coming back, and has led the team in scoring three times in five games, but he was the only real reason the Fighting Irish even had a shot to spoil Duke’s tournament run again.
I’m not sure why I’ll miss Colson so much—his unique, effective style of interior play is the obvious driving force, but I think a big part of it comes from realizing what the upcoming departure of Farrell and Colson means. Their graduation bookends a group of Notre Dame players—Colson, Farrell, Vasturia, Connaughton, Grant, and V.J. Beachem—that was one of my favorite team cores in recent college play. It is admittedly extremely lame to like a Notre Dame team, but this Notre Dame team produced shit like this, and was far from the grunty/chippy parochial school vibes of old. In a game I haven’t been able to find online, I once watched all five Notre Dame players array themselves around the perimeter and swing the ball full corner-to-corner and then back to the wing for a three-pointer. It was art. The hard part, in watching them lose last night, was seeing that brilliant group go out with a whimper—last year, in Colson’s breakout campaign, the Fighting Irish didn’t even make it past the first weekend of the tournament. This year, they may not make it at all. I mean, come on, look at this Brey quote from CBS Sports:
“One of the things I told the seniors, if it is the NIT, Notre’s Dame’s played in the NIT a bunch. We’ve never won it. I said, ‘You know what would be neat? What if we had an NIT banner you guys hung up as seniors and you’d come back and go — I know it’s the NCAA — but remember that year? To come back and pull that off?’ We’d be really proud.”
This team and its star both deserve a less depressing end than that.
Colson, who was arguably the most entertaining and certainly the most versatile player on two Elite Eight teams, will now be sequestered to the NIT, where far too few people will watch him step off a college court for the last time in his career. He finished his final go-round against Duke with 18 points, nine rebounds, three steals, and a block—once again, he got outplayed by a stud one-and-done Blue Devil freshman, and once again he was the best player in a Notre Dame uniform on the court. Colson concludes his four years of owning Duke with averages of 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game against Krzyzewski defenses. Take out his freshman year, and it jumps to 21.4 points and an even 10 rebounds per.
Maybe the selection committee will surprise me and decide that a Notre Dame team with Colson is vastly different from the one that dropped seven in a row; then again, they could decide the Fighting Irish are the same team that lost to Indiana and Ball State with Colson on the floor. Either way, even if it’s bittersweet—even if it’s in the NIT and I forget the games are even happening and don’t watch—the end of the most entertaining Irish team in recent memory isn’t all bad. If anything, it’s a reminder to be thankful to have watched insane shit like this instead of four years of Luke Harangody 2.0 lumbering around.