Bonzie Colson didn’t want to admit it, but he noticed that the buzz on Friday night at the ACC Tournament was centered entirely around Duke and North Carolina.
Barclays Center was packed as the two rivals squared off in the semifinals — every seat was taken, press row was overflowing, and cameramen swarmed any player or coach from either team who dared step on the floor pregame.
Contrast that to the site just a few hours later, after Duke walked off the court a winner and Colson’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish took on Florida State in the other semifinal.
Maybe half the crowd stuck around to watch Notre Dame win 77-73, and only a half dozen or so reporters bothered with the postgame press conference.
The game was overlooked, much like the Irish have been all season, and by extension, Colson himself, who has been one of the best players in the country.
“I think we were left out of the picture in October,” head coach Mike Brey said after the game. “Now, because we don’t have anyone on Chad Ford’s Big Board, is that why we’re overlooked? I think so.”
Colson doesn’t show up on any mock drafts — not yet anyway —and he’s not on Ford’s Big Board. But he ranks ninth in KenPom’s national player of the year rankings, is a finalist for the Wooden Award and Karl Malone Award, which is given to the top power forward in the nation, and was named All-ACC First Team. He’s also scored in double figures in his last 14 games and crashed the boards to record a double-double in eight of them.
To be fair, it makes sense for Colson to be overlooked because, well, he does not look at all like one would expect. He plays in the post but is just 6’5. As a composite three-star recruit out of high school, he did not rank among the top 100 prospects in the country, and he went to Notre Dame with little fanfare.
Since then, his journey has been one of steady improvement, often in more subtle ways that have quietly aided his breakout.
“He became a better passer,” Brey said. “He's finding people and passing the ball, and he's become a better defender.”
Colson explained how the areas he’s improved in most don’t show up in the stat sheet, but his gaudy numbers would be impossible without them. He says he’s learned to take his time more at the foul line, focusing on his breathing and his routine. As a result, his free-throw percentage, which was always strong, has steadily improved. That’s especially important considering he ranked 14th in the ACC this season in free-throw rate.
He’s also gotten better at rolling off ball screens and being more decisive with his footwork. His teammates get on him about it when he makes mistakes in practice, and that’s how he likes it.
“We have really intelligent guys who buy into our culture,” he said. “Everyone speaks in huddles. Everyone talks. Everyone listens. That’s something special.”
When speaking with him, Colson first comes across as bland, giving the sort of coach speak that fans may roll their eyes at. But talk to him more, and you see that he’s been around enough and been relied upon enough that he’s like a coach himself. Words like culture and leadership roll off his tongue in a way that makes it hard to actually talk to him about his game.
That culture is something Brey has worked to instill since he arrived in South Bend in 2000. By the time Colson got there, he had guys like Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton to learn from. The next year, it was Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson. Now it’s Colson’s turn to teach, and it’s no coincidence that Colson’s time at Notre Dame has come during one of the most successful eras in program history.
As a freshman, Colson played just 12 minutes per game, but he made the most of them, posting six points and three rebounds per game. The Fighting Irish went to the Elite Eight that year for the first time since 1979.
The next year, with leaders Grant and Connaughton having graduated, he upped his numbers to 11 points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes. Notre Dame reached the Elite Eight again.
Now he’s posting 17 and 10, completing his transition from role player to starter to star.
Going forward, Brey insists that Colson is a future pro, even if he’s not recognized as one, or quite ready to be, now. His lack of size probably turns him off to scouts at first, but he has shown no problem routinely going up against ACC bigs who have half a foot on him.
He makes up for his lack of height by filling a variety of roles. He led the ACC in defensive rebounding percentage, but he also shot nearly 40 percent from three. He ranks 16th in block percentage but also has the third-lowest turnover rate in the league.
Colson’s philosophy in the face of adversity is one that he will need to enact against a much bigger Duke team in the ACC title game.
“Just keep battling, keep fighting for position,” he said. “Try to outplay them as best we can. If there's a loose ball opportunity, get on the loose balls. We have to rebound and move on and continue to defend.”
If Colson does that, Brey says, his teammates can feed off the energy.
“That nose for the ball and that edge that he plays with gives the rest of our group a lot of confidence,” he said.
The Fighting Irish face Duke on Saturday night in the ACC championship game. It’ll be in the Saturday primetime slot for the third year in a row, and Notre Dame will be going for its second ACC title in three years.
If Colson continues to play like this on the biggest stage, someone will notice.