From Grease to greatness: Bonzie Colson’s transformation into an All-American

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The moment that Martin Inglesby knew Bonzie Colson was the right player for the Notre Dame program didn’t come during an EYBL game against a top recruit in his class or while watching Colson finish off his third workout of the day.

It came during a high school practice, one that Colson left early. He had rehearsal. He was starring in the St. Andrew’s School’s production of Grease.

“He’s really comfortable in his skin,” said Inglesby, who is now the head coach at Delaware but, at the time, was a longtime assistant on Mike Brey’s staff. “He’s a bright kid, really articulate, well-rounded. Going to St. Andrews was really good for him. Every year there he had to be in a play. I remember going up to watch his workouts, and he’d have to leave basketball practice to go to play practice. I’d call him and he’d be coming from study hall, and I was like, ‘This kid fits us.'”

And while the Notre Dame coaching staff would love to be able to say that they knew he was going to be great, they knew something that no one else did the first time they set eyes on their future all-american, the truth is … well … they didn’t. Colson is a power forward that stands all of 6-foot-5 on a good day. In high school, he had a little, shall we say, baby fat around the midsection, and his high-waist and skinny legs meant that he wasn’t exactly what you’d call a layup line scout.

“He’s exceeded my expectations,” head coach Mike Brey told NBC Sports.

But the kid had strong bloodlines. His father was a former Rhode Island star and an assistant coach with Al Skinner at Boston College. What’s more is that Brey not only knew Big Bonzie as a rival assistant in the Big East, but they were also rivals in the high school ranks. The elder Colson was playing for Dunbar High in Baltimore when Brey was coaching at DeMatha.

And the younger Colson?

He was able to produce at every level he had played at. High school, AAU, the EYBL. His style of play, the ability he had to space the floor, the toughness battling bigger players in the paint, fit how Notre Dame runs their offense.

“Let’s get him,” Brey remembers thinking at the time. “The way we play, we’ll figure it out.”


A young Bonzie Colson, via St. Andrew’s School

There really is no great story about how Notre Dame discovered Bonzie Colson.

They didn’t watch him go for 30 points against a kid they were recruiting. There was no monster performance when they got to a gym early and had to watch the end of the previous game. Colson didn’t come from some out-of-the-way, backwoods town that doesn’t show up on GPS. He’s from New Bedford, Mass., a suburb outside Providence less than an hour from Boston.

The Irish, believe it or not, discovered Colson in a recruiting service they subscribe to.

You see, Notre Dame has a type. Brey and his staff know their school. They know their program. They know that not everyone can thrive in those academic environs, that the recruits they bring to South Bend must value a degree from, say, the Mendoza College of Business over major minutes early in their career.

“I always look for key words that fit us,” said Inglesby. “High basketball IQ, feel for the game, versatile forward. Something like that.”

That’s what Colson’s profile said. So Inglesby called up Colson’s high school coach, Mike Hart, who said more of the same. He’s a good kid, undersized with a chip on his shoulder because so many people told him he wasn’t good enough. Inglesby made it a point to see Colson play the next chance he got, which came at an EYBL event in Los Angeles in April of 2013.

Colson was playing for BABC, but the program didn’t have the kind of talent that typically populates the roster. Still, they were winning enough and Colson was playing well. After watching him play that first game, Inglesby came away impressed, even more so after seeing the box score. 18 points, eight boards, five assists, four blocks.

The next time Colson played that weekend, Inglesby and Brey were sitting one court away.

“Just watch this kid, No. 35.”

Mike Brey (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Every time Brey did, Colson was making something happen. There was a tip-in, a 15-footer jumper, an offensive rebound in traffic. Every time the Irish head man glanced over to that court, Colson was making something else happen. Brey, like Inglesby, was intrigued. At dinner that night, the pair decided to make sure that they saw Colson play twice the next day, the last day of that live period, and he again impressed.

“He was a little out of shape, awkward body, but damn did he produce every time he got on the floor,” Inglesby said.

They started recruiting Colson after that, but it wasn’t as if they were immediately sold on him. He could play, they knew that, but a 6-foot-5 power forward is a 6-foot-5 power forward; there’s a reason you don’t often see them in the ACC. What the staff couldn’t shake, however, was that production. Playing in the EYBL, Colson was going up against the big men that he’ll eventually see down the road should he wind up at an high-major program. And in the spring and summer of 2013, Colson’s final season of AAU ball, he was the single-most efficient offensive player on the EYBL circuit.

“Every time someone would say, ‘size, all that,’ Martin would go ‘Coach, look at the latest update,'” Brey said. “Every time we wanted to doubt him, he would show me the efficiency stats.”

“We just kept coming back to, ‘I don’t know what number he is, but he’s a basketball player.'”


Bonzie Colson (Elsa/Getty Images)

The academic standards required by Notre Dame would, at face value, appear to be a hindrance for an ACC basketball program. The enrollment requirements and the strenuous workloads significantly diminishes the pool of players that Brey and his staff are able to recruit from.

That’s an obstacle to work around, but it’s become one of the most influential factors in the culture that he’s been able to build on this team.

Beyond the simple fact that a smaller pools of potential recruits allows the Irish to narrow their focus onto top targets more quickly, the academic component has allowed Brey to hold on to players that may have transferred out of another program frustrated by the lack of early playing time. You see, Notre Dame is something of a throwback. Brey is loyal to his upperclassmen. They’re going to get their starting spot and major minutes while the underclassmen are forced to ride the pine for one, two or even three seasons, if they happen to redshirt.

In the one-and-done era where early entry to the NBA Draft has become an annual tradition for college basketball’s best and brightest stars, Notre Dame has been able to stay old, to promote from within, to have that next man up ready when, say, Jerian Grant and Pat Connuaghton graduates, or Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste leave school.

It’s a credit to the Notre Dame coaches for developing the players they bring in.

But in order for those coaches to be able to develop them, they actually have to be there.

“I think they’ve seen a track record of guys ahead of them, but it also helps that they’re there for the degree, too,” Brey said. “So when they are, as a sophomore, thinking about leaving, and they’re like, ‘well, I’m two years into the Mendoza Business School degree,’ I can keep them another year that other people can’t.”

“Yes, they’ve been unhappy. Yes, they’ve thought about transferring, but they hang in there with us another year, and by their junior year, they’re playing. Matt Farrell, his dad probably wanted to kidnap me when he was a sophomore and wasn’t playing. Now, I’m a family member.”

In the process, Brey has built up a reputation for making players better. There’s a culture within that locker room, a belief that as long as you put in the work, your time will come. That’s part of what made Notre Dame appealing to Colson, particularly the success that Brey has had with skilled, undersized forwards: Luke Harangody, Tim Abromaitis, Pat Connaughton.

“Those undersized players, they really develop in the system,” Colson said. “The offense we run really fits for them. Small-ball, move, pass. I think that kind of fits who I am as a basketball player.”

Colson knew what he was in for when he signed on with the Irish. He’s shed 20 pounds from the 240 that he weighed when he arrived in South Bend – the, as he puts it, “overweight baby fat” – and was playing well in practice, but he was the eighth-man in a seven-man rotation. By mid-January, he had taken six DNP-CDs and was “taking my practices as games,” he said. “Playing hard, taking charges, fouling hard. That was my game.”

It paid off early in ACC play, when star Zach Auguste was forced to miss some time due to an academic misstep. Colson stepped in an immediately started producing, scoring 10 points in 22 minutes in a win at Georgia Tech after failing to get in any of the previous three games. He was good enough in Auguste’s absence that Brey had to find minutes for him, and by the end of the year, it paid off. In February, Colson had a three-game stretch were he went for 16 points in 14 minutes at Boston College, had 16 points in 19 minutes against Clemson and then posted a season-high 17 in a win at Louisville.

His true coming out party came a week later, when he scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half of an upset-win over eventual national champions Duke in the ACC tournament.

As a sophomore, Colson started and averaged 11.1 points and 6.7 boards in 25 minutes, but the real leap came as a junior, when he was named an all-american after averaging 17.8 points and 10.1 boards. The 6-foot-5 Colson often played the role of center for that Notre Dame team, the centerpiece of an offense that was, oftentimes, unstoppable.

What makes Colson to unique is that, while he truly is 6-foot-5, he has no neck. If you line him up, shoulder-to-shoulder, with someone that is 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8, their shoulders are at the same level, meaning that, functionally, he is a 6-foot-8 player with a 7-foot-3 wingspan.

“He’s sneaky long because of it,” Brey said. “You don’t expect it.”

“His dad is 6-10. His mom is tall. He’s hoping he’s still going to grow,” Farrell, a senior, all-ACC point guard and one of Colson’s best friends, says with a smile.

Matt Farrell celebrates with Bonzie Colson (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The size disadvantage is not as bad as it seems, which is critical given Colson’s elaborate offensive repertoire. He has the entire package. He shot 43.3 percent from three last season. He can score in the post. He’s a killer from 17-feet and in. He can pass out of double-teams as well, which is where this all comes together: Notre Dame can put four shooters on the floor around him, which puts defenses in a bind. Either you try to stop him one-on-one (more on that in a second) or you send another defender, at which point Colson makes the right pass and the Irish get an open three.

“We try to isolate him,” Farrell said. “He’s just so hard to guard. He can shoot, he can hit that step back, he’s long enough that he can finish around the rim. He’s hard to guard from the post out because when he’s fading away, he’s got those long arms where he can get that off. He plays angles well. He’s so unique.”

Much of Colson’s improvement one-on-one can be credited to Notre Dame assistant Ryan Humphrey. Humphrey was part of Brey’s first teams at Notre Dame, a 6-foot-10 low-post bruiser that averaged 19 points, 10 boards and three blocks as a senior before getting selected as the 19th pick of the 2002 NBA Draft. He bounced around the NBA for five years before spending some time playing in Europe. He’s retired now, and joined Brey’s staff in the spring of 2016.

And as soon as he got onto campus, he made a point to seek out Colson.

To play one-on-one.

“If he can score on me, he can score on anyone,” Humphrey said with a smile.

He was right.

“Our first workout and I couldn’t score on him,” Colson said. “It was a big reality check on where my game needs to be. He’s been out of the game for eight years and he’s still locking me up?”

Those one-on-one games, which Colson credits with “expanding my game,” still persist, although it’s tough to figure out who, exactly, is winning these days. The one thing they do agree on is, as Colson puts it, that “he doesn’t call any fouls.”


(Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Bonzie Colson was never a diamond in the rough.

His father was an assistant coach on Al Skinner’s staff at Boston College. He played for St. Andrew’s School, a powerhouse high school program in Rhode Island that has produced the likes of Michael Carter-Williams and Cole Swider, a top 40 prospect committed to Villanova. He played AAU ball for BABC, which had, in the two previous years, had produced Nerlens Noel, Wayne Selden, Georges Niang, Jake Layman and Andrew Chrabacz.

Everyone saw Colson.

They just didn’t know what they were looking at.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.