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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.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.