Bonzie Colson injury leaves Notre Dame's Mike Brey with toughest coaching job yet

For Mike Brey, the injury is as disappointing as it is spooky. 

Notre Dame announced Tuesday night that senior forward Bonzie Colson, a preseason All-American playing the best basketball of his superb career, would miss about eight weeks because of surgery to repair a broken foot. Brey, the Fighting Irish's veteran coach, told CBS Sports in a text message that Colson hurt his left foot in a non-contact injury during Friday's practice.

"Plot thickens," Brey said Tuesday night. 

One of the best players in college basketball heard a pop while running down the floor. Colson felt discomfort but still managed to log 33 minutes in Notre Dame's home win Saturday against Georgia Tech. The hope was that it was just a strain. But the pain didn't dissipate. On Tuesday, an X-ray was taken and doctors determined surgery, which is happening Thursday, was necessary. 

It sucks for Colson, obviously. Great player, great reputation, and he's robbed of doing something special. His college career may be over.

It stings for Brey because he humorously suggested to me Thursday night, less than 24 hours before Colson hurt himself, to not even have Friday practice. 

We were sitting in Brey's office talking about the season, talking about the ACC schedule, talking about his impending school record. (With a win Wednesday night at home, Brey will surpass Digger Phelps for most victories in program history.) Brey recalled to me how he's told local media and his team that this season would be different from recent ones. It was going to be harder for Notre Dame to win than people realized. The roster, though talented in its starting five, was as green and thin as he's had in a long time. The ACC, while down from last year, was still going to be a league that sends at least seven teams to the NCAAs. 

The conversation moved toward the value of his seniors, Colson and point guard Matt Farrell. Earlier in the afternoon UConn announced it lost starting shooting guard Alterique Gilbert for the season. Minutes later, Maryland announced the same for Justin Jackson, a sophomore forward with an NBA future. I asked Brey if he ever worried about losing Colson and/or Farrell to serious injury, or if he tried to not let his mind go there. 

"Absolutely, I think about it," he said. 

usatsi-9191783.jpg
Mike Brey relied on Bonzie Colson heavily the past two years. USATSI

He's superstitious with it, too. In the preseason, when a burst of news came out that other teams were losing players to injuries, Brey would limit Notre Dame's practice the following day. He was already putting a pitch count, so to speak, on Colson and Farrell in practice this season in an effort to save their bodies for the rigors of league play. After game days, Brey's been asking Colson and Farrell, "Hey, how are your legs feeling?" 

The reality Brey kept at the forefront: Colson and Farrell are vital, and if we lose one of those guys, we could be in big trouble. He's been trying to avoid the exact situation he and his team have fallen into. 

Later Thursday night, when Creighton's Marcus Foster went down during the Bluejays' road loss at Seton Hall, Brey jokingly suggested he ought to outright cancel Friday's practice. His superstition was correct. 

"We need to embrace this challenge," Brey said in Notre Dame's press release on Colson's injury. "This program has lost key guys before, and we figured out a way to earn an NCAA bid." 

It has, but not ever with a guy as key as Colson and never with a roster that -- at the time of a key player's injury -- was still trying to figure out who its sixth man was. Colson was on pace to be one of the five most valuable players in college basketball. His averages: 21.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 2.0 steals. He's 56 percent from 2-point range. He's a unique player this season in college basketball. Not only can Notre Dame not replace him, no other team can duplicate him.

Now Brey has to try to get an 11-3 Notre Dame, with questions up and down the bench, to .500 in the ACC in order to have a comfortable shot at getting into the Big Dance. The Fighting Irish's only win over a top-75 KenPom team is the Maui title game victory over Wichita State back on the eve of Thanksgiving. Notre Dame will be evaluated going forward by the selection committee based on its roster as it stands now, not with the presumption (until further notice) that Colson would be available in the NCAA Tournament

While Notre Dame has put an eight-week time table on Colson's recovery, the reality is his college career could be over. Brey told CBS Sports that he won't rush Colson back. If Notre Dame winds up wobbling through league play, Colson could be better served waiting until NBA workouts in the spring before he plays at 100 percent.

"Going to be really safe with it," Brey said. "I'm now more concerned for him to be healthy for his NBA auditions."

Notre Dame fans have to realize this is a team moving forward mentally as though Colson's not coming back. With that in mind, Brey is going to have to pull off one of the best coaching runs of his career in order to keep Notre Dame in the top five of the ACC. The Irish have to play Duke, UNC, Clemson and Virginia on the road. Those teams have a current combined record of 49-5. Brey's turned Notre Dame into one of the most consistent, efficient programs in college basketball over the past five years. 

Now, on the precipice of a career record, Brey's ever-lingering fear has become his reality.   

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories