SOUTH BEND – Bonzie Colson was never going to leave Notre Dame early.
There was speculation he'd bolt for the NBA following his breakout junior season: He tabbed 18 double-doubles, averaging 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, earned first-team All-ACC honors, was a national player of the year candidate and led the Fighting Irish to the ACC championship game where he scored 29 points and grabbed nine rebounds with an ankle injury.
Following an early second-round exit in the NCAA tournament, a dejected Colson told reporters he'd return for his senior year. A month later, he made that decision official even though he still had six weeks before the draft deadline.
"I couldn't leave this place," Colson said Friday. "It's my second home."
CHALLENGE: Irish get the Spartans
Colson never went through the pre-draft process. His family and coach Mike Brey requested an evaluation from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee, but the feedback was what they expected: He wouldn't be a first-round pick, maybe not even a second.
"I knew I needed to improve," Colson said. "I knew it was best for me to come back. But regardless, I wanted to come back for my fourth year."
His return likely makes Notre Dame one of the top teams in the country next season. USA TODAY Sports currently has the Irish ranked No. 14 in its preseason poll. Colson gives the Irish a boost with his regular double-doubles and should be a preseason first team All-America selection.
Plus Brey, who traditionally loves coaching older teams, recently applauded Colson's work in the weight room with strength coach Tony Rolinski. Once a doughy freshman with more than 20 percent body fat and weighing in at 225 pounds last year, Colson is now 226 pounds of lean muscle, Brey said.
His return also means another year with starting point guard Matt Farrell. The two have been named team captains, along with Austin Torres, and developed strong offensive chemistry last year.
"He's so dynamic and versatile and hard to guard," Farrell said of Colson. "He spaces the floor well, can score at all three levels. He's a tough matchup and I love playing pick and roll with him obviously."
Brey doesn't really know what he has in his team this early, but likes their experience. Farrell, who was one of if not the most improved players in the country last year, averaged 14.5 points and 5.4 assists per game last year. Add in junior Rex Pflueger and sophomore T.J. Gibbs, who came on late when Brey decided to go smaller with his lineup that he rode at the end of conference play through the NCAA tournament. Both players will get more minutes following the departures of Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem.
"I love the fact that this group has played deep into the ACC tournament and has experience playing in the NCAA tournament," Brey said. "They're gonna be really hard on themselves (next year) and I'm gonna have to pace us mentally."
Then there's incoming freshman and four-star guard D.J. Harvey, who stands at 6-5, 220. He will be called on offensively. Harvey was a consensus top-50 player out of DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. - which is where Brey coached in the '80s - and averaged 15.4 points, seven rebounds and four assists his junior season.
Farrell will run the show like last year, but the dynamic doesn't work without Colson's length and versatility. During a recent open workout session, Colson gave a laundry list of things he's working on to become more consistent.