ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. – It has been 37 days since the St. Bonaventure Bonnies (9-3, 1-0 Conf.) last played a game on their home floor at the Reilly Center.
Since then, the calendar flipped to 2022, COVID-19 disrupted society yet again, and Bona played just three games.
But on Friday night, all eyes will be focused on Bob Lanier Court as the Bonnies will take on the VCU Rams (10-4, 3-0 Conf.), the team that Bona defeated in the 2021 Atlantic 10 Championship game.
Tip-off is slated for 7:30 p.m. and the game will air nationally on ESPN2.
This game will likely impact both teams come Selection Sunday.
But do not tell St. Bonaventure Coach Mark Schmidt that this is unlike any other game.
“It’s a big game because it’s the next game on our schedule,” Schmidt told the media on Thursday. “You only have 18 opportunities [in conference play] and we may not even have 18 opportunities this year. Each [game] is special. No [game] is more important than the other. We prepare just as we do for every game. Even though its on ESPN and we got Mike Corey [and Seth Greenberg] doing the game, it’s all great. But it doesn’t matter. It’s another game and we gotta do the best job we can in preparing. We know we have to play really, really well to beat a team [like] VCU [with] all of the talent that they have.”
Scouting the VCU Rams
The VCU Rams come to the Enchanted Mountains feeling confident as they have won seven games in a row. They have not lost since the Friday after Thanksgiving, when (#23) UCONN bested the Rams in overtime in the Bahamas.
VCU has started Atlantic 10 play 3-0, which includes a last-second victory at Dayton. Their other two conference victories were over George Washington and La Salle, two teams that will likely begin the Atlantic 10 Tournament on Wednesday.
“Despite the win streak, I am apprehensive about VCU’s ability to beat teams of the Bonnies’ caliber,” Jason Boleman, who covers the Rams for A10 Talk, told me. “In the games against GW and La Salle, the Rams won in blowouts, but also gave up major second-half runs against likely ‘pillow-fight’ teams. Hopefully, that is just [VCU] playing down to their competition, but [I am] worried about what would happen if the Bonnies jump out to a second-half lead.”
The Rams have one of the best defenses in the country, as their suffocating “Havoc” full-court press can slow down any team. But offensively, VCU has struggled at times, hence why Boleman has some reservations about the Rams if they find themselves facing a deficit.
As seen above, the Rams rank very high in pretty much every advanced defensive metric.
“[VCU plays] very aggressive, pressure-defense in the full-court [and] half-court,” Schmidt said when asked about Havoc. “They have long athletic guys and they try to disrupt you. That’s why they’re number [two] in the country in three-point defense.”
Indeed, the Rams are terrific defensively, forcing turnovers almost 27% of the time.
They also have a terrific shot-blocker inside in junior forward Hason Ward, who stands at 6-foot-9 and has a 7-foot-4 wingspan.
Ward was named to the 2020-21 Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team alongside St. Bonaventure’s Osun Osunniyi.
Although VCU has a terrific defense, they do give up a ton of offensive rebounds. The Bona guards will need to follow their shots and crash the boards on offense as there will be plenty of second chance opportunities.
Speaking of offense, VCU struggles with turning the ball over when they have possession. The Rams turn it over on 22.6% of their possessions, which ranks 337th in the country, according to KenPom.
In fact, the entire offense has struggled for most of the season to this point. Before their last two blow-out victories, VCU eclipsed the 70-point mark just once, which was in a Dec. 11 victory over Old Dominion.
Just because the offense has been below average does not mean VCU lacks any star-power.
Ace Baldwin, the 6-foot-1 sophomore guard from Baltimore, averages 10.8 points per game (PPG) and shoots 40.0% from beyond the arc. Not bad for a guy that tore his Achilles tendon during summer workouts.
“Baldwin is the star and the best offensive weapon [that] VCU has,” Boleman told me. “In the six games since Ace came back from injury, VCU has scored 65 or more points five times. They only did that twice in the eight games he missed. [In fact,] VCU has covered the spread in each game he has played. His ability to create plays, and how he sees the floor, is incredible. He’s improved his scoring too as his 16-point game against George Washington was his career high.”
Last season, Baldwin played alongside Bones Hyland, who now stars for the Denver Nuggets. As such, his role has been elevated and he has clearly revamped this VCU team.
“[Baldwin] gives them confidence,” Schmidt told me when I asked him about VCU’s star point-guard. “He’s a great on-the-ball defender. He gets into the paint and has a great IQ for the game. I think that’s one of the reasons why [VCU] is having success recently because he’s come back and seems to be fully healthy and playing at a high level.”
Another reason why VCU has had some recent success is because of Vince Williams, the 6-foot-6 senior from Toledo, Ohio.
Boleman referred to Williams as the “Swiss army knife:” he can do it all.
“Williams is a versatile player,” Schmidt said. “He’ll play [both] the four and the five. He has a really good skill set. He’s tough. He can play on the block, can take guys off the dribble, and he can guard a post guy. He’s very similar to Jalen Adaway in terms of being able to play a bigger guy because of his size, toughness, and athletic ability.”
Williams leads the team in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 11.3 PPG and 6.0 RPG, respectively.
How Do the Bonnies Win?
Whoever wins the turnover battle will likely win the game.
Through 12 games so far this season, Bona has turned it over on just 16.4% of their possessions, which ranks 40th in the country, per KenPom.
It helps to have five seniors who have so much experience.
But the Havoc pressure is like no other defense in the country. It creates problems for everybody.
Last time out, Bona defeated La Salle in overtime. But they lost the turnover battle 14-to-10. Point guard Kyle Lofton committed five turnovers while both Osunniyi and Adaway coughed it up three times apiece.
That simply cannot happen against VCU.
Yes, Bona had a 25-day long lay-off thanks to COVID-19 and the Bonnies needed to shake off some rust. But there are no excuses listed in the final standings. If the Bonnies are going to beat VCU, they need to win the turnover battle, plain and simple.
And in winning the turnover battle, that means you have to force them defensively too.
Last season, Bona ranked first in the Atlantic 10 in points per game allowed and in defensive efficiency.
This season, that has not been the case. The Bonnies have given up 69.2 PPG, which ranks 8th in the conference. Meanwhile, VCU gives up just 57.1 PPG, which leads the Atlantic 10 by a wide margin. That mark is good for 6th nationally.
For the Bonnies, the defensive rotations have not been as solid as they were last year. As a result of this, their opponents are getting open looks both inside and out. For instance, on Tuesday against La Salle, the Bonnies allowed the Explorers to have wide-open looks from the perimeter. The Explorers made 12 of their 37 three-point attempts and they honestly should have made more. If La Salle were a better offensive team, the Bonnies likely would have lost. Alas, Bona still found a way to get the job done and they got the stops defensively when they needed to.
But the disparity between this year and last is clearly seen in Bona’s effective field goal percentage (eFG%) on defense. Essentially, eFG% measures how successful one team is from the field. During the 2020-21 season, Bonaventure’s opponents had an overall eFG% of 45.5%, which ranked 12th in the country. This season, that number has ballooned to 49.4%, which ranks 161st nationally. For context, the Division I eFG% average hovers around 50%. The disparity here may seem small, but it helps tell the story as to why Bona’s defense has not reached its potential. Teams are shooting better against the Bonnies this year.
As such, Bonaventure’s defense needs to step up against VCU. The Rams have struggled offensively against good teams to this point, so this serves as a good opportunity for the Brown and White to lock down and protect their home floor.
And finally, the bench needs to play more of a role.
VCU makes their opponents work hard for the full 40 minutes, which only produces tired legs. Coming off a game in which each Bona starter played more than 40 minutes, coupled with the fact that they had not played in almost a month, the overall stamina of the Bonnies will likely factor into Friday night.
“We shall see,” said Schmidt when I asked him about his bench. “We determine that as the game is being played. [It has] a lot to do with how the game is played, how it is refereed, if there is a lot of stoppage. There are lot of things that are involved. It’s not just throwing guys out there just to throw guys out there, so we will adapt as the game goes along.”
Karim Abdoul Coulibaly and Quadry Adams combined to play just three minutes against La Salle. Nobody else checked-in to the game aside from the five starters. The Bonnies rank dead last in the country in bench minutes.
Certainly, the “Iron Man Five” of Lofton, Welch, Holmes, Adaway, and Osunniyi are both experienced and obviously, very talented. Heck, all five players average above 10.0 PPG. But fatigue crawls up quickly when playing against VCU. It will be interesting to see Schmidt’s rotation against this team. Personally, I think Coulibaly, Adams, and Linton Brown will need to play quality minutes for Bona to pick up their second conference win of the season. Each of those players have proven capable of doing so. But then again, that’s why I am here writing this preview while Schmidt paces the sidelines as the head coach of a very successful program.
With all of this in mind, Bona will ultimately need a complete team effort, on both offense and defense, to get by a talented VCU team. Fundamentals will be key, especially the turnover battle, but defense and rebounding are just as important.
Before Ace Baldwin returned from injury, the Rams were like a headless-chicken on offense. VCU had one of the worst offenses in the country in terms of efficiency, they turned the ball over almost a fourth of the time, and oftentimes, they looked lost out there.
Since then, the Rams have been a different team. Even though they are coming off of two blowout losses, confidence has been restored on the offensive end and the results have shown.
Plus that defense is as suffocating as ever.
And do you think the Rams have forgotten about last season’s Championship game in Dayton? They are most certainly seeking revenge.
The Bonnies are the more talented team, but I think VCU’s defense leads them to victory in what will be a freezing night in Western New York.
VCU 57, St. Bonaventure 55
Jack Milko received his B.A. in Political Science from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is now working to get his M.A. in Sports Journalism from St. Bonaventure University. A lifelong fan of the Bonnies, Jack covers the team for @A10Talk. Follow him on Twitter for more Bonnies coverage at @Jack_Milko.
Featured image courtesy of Dan Nelligan, St. Bonaventure Class of 2020, who serves as a photographer for @A10Talk.