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Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson's quest to keep his edge

Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson, a preseason All-American, knows everyone from opposing defenses to NBA scouts will be focused on his every move, but he's focused on ignoring the distractions. "Stay hungry and humble, no matter what they're saying," he said. Michael Hickey/Getty Images

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It's the first week of practice in Notre Dame's subterranean basketball gym and Bonzie Colson can't get his jumper to work.

Mike Brey notices his senior leader -- an All-American and contender for national player of the year honors -- start to boil up with frustration as another shot clangs off the rim. The veteran coach's sense of calm and cool presents a study of opposites. Colson, meanwhile, misses another shot during a 5-on-5 drill, clutches the front of his practice jersey and tears it right down the middle -- a rip halfway to his belly button.

Brey casts a glance at the jersey and in the next break between drills decides, "All right, we need to deal with that."

"Hey Bonz, maybe you just revert back to being a junkyard dog," Brey remembers telling him. "Go get a couple put-backs, get fouled. Let's get into junkyard dog mode."

The dry spell was brief, an ordinary and soon forgotten autumnal removal of rust. The jersey is tucked away somewhere in his apartment bedroom. It remains, though, a nice little summary of the strong forces pulling in opposite directions that Colson will need to balance this season.

Colson scrapped his way into a featured role in Notre Dame's shape-shifting offense during three years as an underdog with a knack for finishing shots. The Irish want their new poster child for the positionless to continue expanding his scoring repertoire, but they'd like him to do so without him veering too far from the dirty work that got him here. They also want to keep kindled their emotional leader's fiery attitude, but at a pace that doesn't turn new expectations into a hindrance. Trying to prove people wrong is healthier fuel than trying to prove them right.

"Stay hungry and humble, no matter what they're saying," Colson said after that first week of practice. "I still have that practice jersey as a reminder. It's going to be a long season. It's not going to be easy."

Colson -- whose Irish are off to a 3-0 start as they head to the Maui Invitational in Hawaii this week -- relishes a good symbolic token or superstitious ritual. He inherited that from his father, Bonzie Sr., who coached at Boston College and Rhode Island, among other places, after a playing career of his own. They talk or text daily, and Colson Sr.'s most consistent words of wisdom in the lead-up to this season have been simple.

"Just do you," Colson Sr. said. "That just means works hard, keep a level head and be a good teammate."

He hears the same simple message on a daily basis from Notre Dame's frontcourt coach Ryan Humphrey. Humphrey was the MVP of Brey's second team in South Bend back in 2002, the original stretch four for Brey's Irish, and returned last year as an assistant coach. On his first day as a coach, Humphrey challenged Colson to a string of situational one-on-one battles under the hoop and won at every spot. The 38-year-old earned some instant credibility.

Humphrey prefers poster boards to deliver his ritualistic message to Colson. Last season, while the junior was emerging as a double-double machine in ACC play, Humphrey had a poster made with an empty thermometer. Each time Colson registered a double-double, he colored in another notch on the poster, which also showed how many similar nights former Irish big men like Luke Harangody, Troy Murphy and that Humphrey guy had posted in the past.

The message was clear. As Colson describes it: "You still ain't ish."

"Everyone was getting in his head, so I said, 'Well, these are the numbers,'" Humphrey said. "I had this amount. Troy had this amount. Luke had this. You got six in a row. That's cute, but I want you to surpass all this."

This year's poster features a photo of Colson with a bull's-eye printed on his chest. He hung it next to his bedroom door so he has to look at it before he leaves home each day. The target is meant to be a reminder that he's gone from hunter to hunted heading into his final season of college ball, but it's not the only crosshairs he'll be trying to escape in the next several months.

NBA scouts will be setting their scopes on Colson this season to try to figure out where he might fit at the next level. While he notched 19 double-doubles last season and averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds a game, he doesn't have the crossover and create-your-own-shot agility that pro scouts want to see in a perimeter player. At 6-foot-6, he won't check the box for the type of size the NBA will want in the post.

Notre Dame under Brey has been a haven for guys who don't quite fit the mold thanks mostly to a flexible offense that allows those players to thrive with versatility and a natural ability to get to the basket. It's a big part of the reason why Colson landed in South Bend.

"I guess we're famous for it," Brey said. "What's he play? I don't know what he plays. I think we always call them basketball players."

Last January, Notre Dame started conference play with wins against No. 9 Louisville and Clemson behind a total of 31 points and 26 rebounds from Colson. His parents happened to be in town, so Brey called them into his office and told them their son was going to have to think about testing the waters of the NBA draft if he kept up the same pace through the rest of the season.

Colson Sr. says he "shut that down right there." He had witnessed too many players in his own coaching career take a turn for the worse after flirting with the NBA and returning to school. Too often, he said, they end up playing for scouts or agents or other hangers-on rather than for their current team.

"Bonzie," Colson Sr. told Brey, "needs to concentrate on playing the way that you and your staff are telling him to play. That's what's gotten him this attention right now."

There was no argument on the other side of the desk. Brey and his staff have tried to keep Colson as insulated as possible from discussion about the types of things he needs to do to impress scouts this season. Brey has been down that road before.

"I've got the speech in the desk drawer right there," he said.

That speech has been fine-tuned over the better part of the past 17 years. Humphrey may have been on the receiving end of its first rendition. He says he wanted to prove he could be a jump shooter as he transitioned from college ball to the pros. And while his three seasons in the NBA and several years collecting a paycheck to play abroad after that are nothing to be ashamed of, he says he thinks his career may have panned out a little differently had he been more committed to staying true to himself.

Colson is surrounded by men who can keep him focused on the short term. He said his goal this season is to continue setting the tone for a deep and experienced team. He knows he can't do that if his mind is wandering into the future.

The last of his many rituals comes each game, minutes before leaving the locker room with Humphrey. They shake hands and the coach asks Colson a simple question.

"Who does it start with?" Humphrey asks each time.

"It starts with me, coach," he responds and then heads out for warm-ups.

Where it finishes will depend largely on how well Colson can strike a balance between the forces tugging him in different directions this season.