RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey spent the past two months hoping his team could somehow stay within reach of an NCAA Tournament bid until Bonzie Colson could return from a broken left foot.
The Fighting Irish have arrived right on schedule. And Colson's return is a potential game-changer, assuming he's able to knock off any rust from his long recovery.
The preseason Associated Press All-American returned this week after missing 15 games with the injury. And he rejoins a team hovering near .500 in the Atlantic Coast Conference with resume-helping games on the schedule, starting Saturday at top-ranked Virginia followed by next week's league tournament in Brooklyn.
"The bad news is you can lose seven in a row in the ACC," Brey said after Wednesday's win against Pittsburgh. "The good news is when you need a quality win, there's one on the schedule for you. ... So that's the benefit of playing in this league: you've got a chance to get some scalps to get you back in the discussion."
Notre Dame (18-12, 8-9 ACC) is a bubble team like few others. With the 6-foot-6 Colson in the lineup, the Fighting Irish won the Maui Invitational and pushed all the way to No. 5 in the AP Top 25 in November. Without him, Notre Dame suffered through a seven-game losing streak that lasted most of January and stood at 3-7 in the ACC after a lopsided loss at North Carolina State on Feb. 3.
Now the Irish are getting back a guy averaging 20.7 points and 10.3 rebounds. And that will leave the NCAA selection committee with a tough evaluation.
Notre Dame sits at No. 69 in the RPI and has just a 2-7 record against Quadrant 1 teams, though that includes a win against Wichita State in the Maui championship game in November (Colson had 25 points and 11 rebounds) and a win at Syracuse.
Colson had 12 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes in his return , and Brey promised Colson's role will only grow.
"I'm sure a lot of committee members watched tonight, and wanted to see (Colson)," Brey said after the Pitt win. "I think they see him being productive. He'll only play more minutes. That can only help us."
ON THE RISE
Louisiana: The Ragin' Cajuns (26-4, 16-1 Sun Belt, 35 RPI) have lost just once since Christmas. Still, after losing its only game against a Quadrant 1 opponent, they probably need to win their league tournament to feel safe.
Loyola-Chicago: The Ramblers (26-5, 31 RPI) have won 15 of 16 after Friday's win against Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
St. Bonaventure: The Bonnies (23-6, 13-4 Atlantic 10, 22 RPI) are rolling with 11 straight wins, including Tuesday's 117-113 triple-overtime win against Davidson — the last team to beat St. Bonaventure on Jan. 19.
TCU: The Horned Frogs (21-9, 9-8 Big 12, 19 RPI) are putting together a strong finish (four straight wins) as they approach their first NCAA bid since 1998.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide (18-13, 8-9 Southeastern Conference) picked a bad time for a four-game losing streak — three coming by double-figure margins — to go with their No. 58 RPI.
Louisville: The Cardinals (19-11, 9-8 ACC) were less than a second away from upsetting No. 1 Virginia on Thursday night. They instead bumbled away what would've been the first true headlining win on their resume to keep things looking uncertain.
Oklahoma: It seems hard to believe that the Sooners (17-12, 7-9 Big 12) are in this predicament considering they stood at No. 4 in the AP Top 25 in January. But they've lost seven of eight since the start of February in a slide that keeps pushing them deeper into bubble territory.
Syracuse: The Orange (18-12, 7-10 ACC) have lost three straight games. Two came against No. 5 Duke on the road and No. 9 North Carolina at home, but Syracuse (49 RPI, 52 KenPom) did nothing to help itself with a double-digit loss at Boston College on Wednesday — the kind of late-season loss that sends teams to the NIT.
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