. Entering Wednesday’s game against Duke, Notre Dame reserve forward Bonzie Colson, a freshman, was averaging just 9.7 minutes per game.
He hadn’t played at all in six games, and his average is buoyed by one start and 22 minutes against Georgia Tech, which happened because starting big man Zach Auguste was suspended.
In the 77-73 win against Duke, though, Colson played 15 minutes, doubled his scoring average with eight points and generally made life difficult for Duke’s Jahlil Okafor when guarding him.
“I was just trying to hit him first and grind out possessions with him,” Colson said of his work on Okafor. “I just had to keep working hard on him. It was a battle, but I just had to take the punches he threw at me and grind it out.”
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey used similar language when describing the goal of the Colson-Okafor matchup.
“I told Bonz this yesterday in practice. I said, ‘Bonz, at Georgia Tech, you got one bloody nose. You may need to get two or three on Wednesday. Can I count on you?’ He goes, ‘No problem, coach!’ ” Brey said. “So he knows he can be physical, but his length and his quickness – he was always around him.”
The Irish were unabashedly physical with Okafor, and why not? Okafor is the most talented big man in college basketball, so it’s not like Notre Dame has the option of guarding him with a player at a similar talent level – and the Irish chose not to double-team him.
Also, college basketball referees, after aiming to clean up the game at the beginning of last season, have backslid, allowing a level of contact that makes it look – as Brey and Colson lauded to – like a boxing match.
ESPN TV analyst Jay Bilas has frequently called the college game unwatchable, as the physicality is preventing skill players from doing their thing. As a result, scoring is back down around the historic lows set in 2013.
“What happens with Jahlil, it’s not just this game, is that they allow a lot of contact,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The kid (Colson) played hard – he played really hard and did a really good job, and he had help, too.
“Jahlil had a heck of a game. If he had hit those free throws we’d be talking about Jahlil having the amazing game, not (Jerian) Grant.”
Okafor did finish with 22 points and 17 rebounds, shooting 10-for-18 from the floor – but the 2-for-7 mark from the free throw line hurts, and it will do nothing to discourage other teams from aiming to be physical with him down low.
Before Krzyzewski left the podium at his postgame news conference, he was asked if college basketball needs to look at the amount of contact allowed.
“In the post, yeah. I mean, there’s no question about it,” he said. “What you can do there and what you can’t do out on the perimeter are two totally different worlds, what can happen in there and what they do not allow to happen outside.
“But that’s a tough area to officiate. There’s no question there’s a lot.”
Tighter officiating in the post would likely result in more foul calls against Okafor, too, but a more tightly called game would take away a popular strategy many teams use to try to neutralize deficits in talent and skill.
There’s no debate about which big man would benefit most from that.
• “Missed opportunities” would be the two-word takeaway from Wednesday’s loss. Some of these were obvious – the 10-for-20 performance from the free-throw line and converting 13 offensive rebounds into just nine points.
Krzyzewski also isolated two other possessions that had a sneaky large impact on the game.
With Duke leading 63-53, Okafor was posting up Colson, backing him down toward the rim, but Colson got a piece of Okafor’s shot, knocking the ball over the backboard.
After a media timeout, Duke inbounded the ball with 7 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Colson again got a piece of Okafor’s shot, and Matt Jones couldn’t corral the offensive rebound, as Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia stripped the ball.
“We had the out-of-bounds under with 7 seconds with a 10-point lead, and we should have gotten something from it,” Krzyzewski said. “We lost the ball. And you’re in position to get fouled or get a three-point play. That was a huge play, right there.”
As Notre Dame took the ball up the floor, it went to Pat Connaughton, who was standing behind the 3-point line in the left corner. He dribbled in, and Tyus Jones managed to poke the ball away.
Rasheed Sulaimon, who was defending Connaughton, swiped at the ball and Okafor dove for it as it rolled out of bounds. His dive was too late and Notre Dame retained possession.
The Fighting Irish converted their inbounds play into two points as Demetrius Jackson got Matt Jones to leave his feet on a pump fake, opening up the lane.
That basket was the start of Notre Dame’s 12-2 run, which set up the late-game comeback.
“Those two exchanges, if you do them right, you’re up by 12 or 13, or, at the very least, you’re up 10 with the ball,” Krzyzewski said.
“That’s what happens in games. You have to beat other people when they’re playing well, and when they’re good. And they’re good, and they’re playing well, and, again, those are critical plays.”