BROOKLYN —Here are two bits of news that would hardly qualify as such were it not for events preceding them: Notre Dame beat Pittsburgh 67-64 in the Tuesday afternoon session that opens the ACC tournament, and senior Bonzie Colson played 33 minutes and afterward said he felt fine.
Both of these things should happen; Pittsburgh went 0-18 against the league during the regular season and Colson, a third-team All-America last season, averaged exactly 33.0 minutes per game. But those facts were made notable by the fact that the Fighting Irish, ranked as high as No. 5 this season, had to play in that ignominious time slot in the first place as the event’s No. 10 seed, largely due to a 15-game stretch where Colson did not play at all, after breaking a bone in his foot during a late-December practice. Thus Notre Dame, now set to play Virginia Tech in tomorrow’s ACC quarterfinal round, is perhaps the most interesting team on this year’s ever-crowded NCAA tournament bubble, a team clearly with the talent to belong in the field but whose compromised resume might prevent the Irish from joining it.
When the selection committee huddles across the East River this weekend to determine the tournament’s 36 at-large berths, odds are good there will be some division on Notre Dame. This is, after all, a team that currently sports an 18-13 record (its win over Div. II Chaminade does not count for tourney purposes) and can tout just one victory over a team with a winning ACC record. But the Fighting Irish also rank 32nd in overall efficiency, per Kenpom.com, won November’s Maui Invitational by beating No. 11 Wichita State, and at full strength — with Colson, the preseason ACC Preseason Player of the Year, and third-team All-ACC guard Matt Farrell, both healthy — very clearly fit the subjective bill. And so now the conference tournament, which the Irish have entered assured of an NCAA bid the last three seasons, has gone from a prize to a lifeline.
“We have a lot of fun here, a lot of success, but it’s different this year,” Farrell said after the game. “We gotta come out with a chip on our shoulder and go get it.”
It was not a chip but a crack that brought them here. After a late December practice, Colson felt soreness in his left foot. He played in the team’s next game, scoring 22 points and grabbing 17 rebounds against Georgia Tech, but when his foot still hurt, an X-ray was ordered, revealing a broken fifth metatarsal that would require surgery to fix and a screw to be inserted. The prognosis was an eight-week absence, a timetable that put his return at the season’s end, if it came at all.
It would be hard to overstate that absence’s importance. Colson had been averaging 21.4 points and 10.4 rebounds — both second among ACC players — and also led the team in blocks and steals. The 6’ 6” (generously listed), long-armed forward had been the fulcrum of an Irish team with serious second-weekend aspirations in March, taking 31.9% of his team’s shots, the most of any Notre Dame player in nearly a decade.
Irish coach Mike Brey preached caution regarding Colson’s recovery, citing the need to avoid a re-injury risk that would jeopardize Colson’s NBA tryouts in the spring. At that point, with Notre Dame facing an ACC slate without its most essential player, it was not clear there would be much of a postseason push for Colson to rejoin anyway. Matters were made worse in the Irish’s first Colson-less game, a win over Syracuse, in which Farrell badly sprained his ankle. The injury kept Farrell out of five of the team’s next seven games, a stretch during which it went 1-6. After Farrell’s first game back, a Feb. 3 loss to N.C. State, Notre Dame was 13-10, careening out of contention.
“It was probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to go through,” Colson said Monday, “not being able to go out there and compete with my brothers. You work so hard in the summer and over the offseason to get to where you’re at. You don’t really think about things like that.”
Difficult, too, was Colson’s rehab, which included an array of stimulation treatments to maintain strength in the leg muscles made inactive by his inability to walk. Here the injury to Farrell, Colson’s roommate and closest friend on the team, provided one silver lining: Colson’s sessions in the training room were no longer solo ventures. “We were there three hours a day, side by side,” Farrell said. “We made it fun.”
It was surely not how they had envisioned spending their senior year. Nor did they imagine a breakfast such as the one Brey took them to after a Feb. 19 loss to Miami that dropped the Irish to 16-12. There the coach told them they had been spoiled, reaching three straight NCAA tournaments including two Elite Eights. It was becoming increasingly clear that their fourth and final collegiate season might not offer a similar sendoff — three weeks earlier, when Duke fans chanted “N-I-T” at Brey’s team during its sixth straight loss, he wondered if they would even reach that — and this was something for which he needed to ensure they were prepared. “I just wanted to really level with them,” Brey said. “And they were great.”
An injection of hope finally came in late February, when Colson was cleared to return to action almost exactly eight weeks after his surgery. After two full practices he saw his first game action last Wednesday, on Senior Night against Pittsburgh, and contributed 12 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes of a cruising win. Three days later his 24 points and 15 rebounds in 37 minutes helped the Irish nearly upset No. 1 Virginia on the road. “We kind of looked at each other,” assistant coach Ryan Humphrey said, “and said, ‘We’re back.’”
Asked about his foot after Tuesday’s win, Colson echoed the sentiment. “The foot’s fine,” he said. “I’m back. I feel good.” These days his treatments are as simple as ice on his knees and calves after games. “Regular basketball soreness,” Colson said.
Tuesday’s game was not the sharpest for Colson, who shot 5-for-14, nor for his team, which only hung to beat its league’s worst (and winless) team by three points. “We are thrilled to escape,” Brey said. It was Colson who ensured they did so, sealing the game with an offensive rebound and two made free throws with 22 seconds left, providing that last push across the finish line after things had gotten dicey.
A loss would have surely sunk Notre Dame’s tourney hopes. A win Wednesday, against Virginia Tech, is likely a prerequisite, and it too might not be enough. Currently just two of the 117 projected brackets compiled by the Bracket Matrix, a survey of media-made predictions aimed at gauging consensus, have the Irish in the tournament. Brey recently joked about celebrating his team’s move into bracketologists’ “next four out” grouping by buying a cake with the phrase drizzled in icing.
A win last Saturday at Virginia would have gone a long way, but the upside of playing in such a difficult conference is that high-quality wins come backed into any tournament run, should one be made. That contest’s most important development might not have been Colson’s production but his endurance; afterwards Brey told Colson he’d played him back into shape, the game offering what no conditioning test could. Now, with his team’s fate so intertwined with that of his star player, there is no time for rest. “For us to make a run at this thing, he’s gotta be playing 30, 34, 35 minutes,” Brey said. “It’s all or nothing now.”