The most compelling reason to keep an eye on Notre Dame this season was to see just what Bonzie Colson — the 6-foot-6, 224-pound do-everything senior — was going to do next.
Now, the Fighting Irish are a curiosity precisely because they’ll spend much of ACC play, starting with Wednesday night’s visit from N.C. State, without one of college basketball’s most fascinating players.
Colson suffered a broken left foot in practice this week and will undergo surgery Thursday. Notre Dame (11-3, 1-0) anticipates he will be out eight weeks. That timeline places Colson’s return in the final week of the regular season, perhaps a little earlier if he proves a quick healer.
It’s a given that losing the ACC’s preseason player of the year will hurt the Fighting Irish, who won the Maui Invitational in November by beating Wichita State in the title game. They haven’t done much of note since, losing to Michigan State, Ball State and Indiana. And it’s not just Colson’s scoring (21.4 points per game) and rebounding (10.4) that must be replaced. How many players in the country have 33 blocks, 28 steals and 11 made three-pointers this season? Just Colson, according to College Basketball Reference.
Call it craftiness, call it an old-man game, call it technical brilliance, call it whatever you like. Colson’s dominance is predicated on his thorough understanding of the game’s nuances, maximization of his physical gifts and a place in one of the sport’s most free-flowing offenses.
Navigating most of the ACC schedule without one of the conference’s best players is daunting enough for Coach Mike Brey’s team. Making it even more challenging is Brey’s affinity for sticking with a tight rotation.
Depth can be overrated — never more so than in the NCAA tournament, when extended television timeouts provide additional time for midgame respites. Over the past 15 seasons, Brey has routinely allocated more than three-quarters of his available minutes to his five primary players — even nosing above 80 percent three seasons ago, when the Irish advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979.
Notre Dame’s minutes allocation, 2002-03 to present
|Season||Top 5 min. %||Record||Postseason|
|07-08||75.37||25-8||Rd. of 32|
|10-11||76.64||27-7||Rd. of 32|
|16-17||77.76||26-10||Rd. of 32|
It’s a logical approach, and it fits with Brey’s willingness to give players control on offense. What’s the best way for such a philosophy to work? Play your best players. A lot.
As for what happens when Notre Dame loses one of them, history offers a mixed bag. When forward Torin Francis was lost to back surgery in 2004 with his team sitting at 11-9, the Irish went a commendable 6-3 without him to earn an NIT bid.
Brey shuffled his rotation well enough when Kyle McAlarney was suspended in 2006-07 to coax an NCAA bid out of the Irish. Notre Dame did the same when fifth-year senior Tim Abromaitis played only two games in 2011-12 because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But when Jerian Grant was lost to an academic suspension in 2013-14, the Irish sputtered to a 15-17 finish.
(It’s no coincidence Notre Dame relied on its five minutes leaders the least in 2007 and 2014; both McAlarney and Grant played a dozen games before their respective suspensions.)
For this year’s Irish to find a path to the postseason — no easy feat in the deep ACC — it will not only need to concoct some depth out of a relatively modest bench but also reinvent itself on the fly as a team without a superior inside presence.
The latter half of that equation is probably easier to solve. Point guard Matt Farrell and wing T.J. Gibbs are shooting better than 40 percent from the floor. (Colson’s presence aided with spacing for both.) Guard Rex Pflueger isn’t quite so efficient but is a superb foul shooter and makes few mistakes. Notre Dame ranks second in the country in turnover percentage according to KenPom.com, and it’s 22nd in free throw percentage.
If senior forward Martinas Geben (8.8 points, 6.4 rebounds) can assume greater responsibilities — and Brey’s history of developing players who can step into larger roles in the latter stages of their college career suggests he can — the Irish could make a push for the top third of the ACC simply as a methodical team that won’t cause its own demise.
The greater concern comes from who will fill Colson’s 33.6 minutes per game. Sophomore forward John Mooney will surely see more time, and freshman wing D.J. Harvey is likely to see his role expand as well. Elijah Burns, Nikola Djogo and Austin Torres figure to have more opportunities as well.
That’s not saying much, though. Notre Dame’s bench logged 31 minutes against Wichita State, 35 against both Michigan State and Indiana, 27 in the loss to Ball State and just 26 on Saturday against Georgia Tech.
Brey is now left with no choice but to use his reserves more. Colson might provide some late help, but the heavy lifting of earning a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament berth will come without him. It’s a shame for both the Irish and college basketball to lose Colson for two months of his senior season. It’s up to Notre Dame to conjure enough depth to ensure he’s playing meaningful games whenever he returns.