PHILADELPHIA – The late television executive Roone Arledge once said that nothing compares to “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Not only did this cliche apply to ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but it also applies to college basketball today.
The St. Bonaventure Bonnies (18-7, 10-4 Conference) have won six games in a row and have vaulted themselves back into the NCAA Tournament conversation. Over the past three weeks, Bona has been on quite the thrill ride.
Meanwhile, the St. Joseph’s Hawks (10-16, 4-11 Conference) have lost six of their last seven games and currently find themselves near the bottom of the Atlantic 10 standings. The Hawks have had an agonizing month.
But on Saturday at 6:00 p.m., the Hawks will host the Bonnies in what will be their second matchup of the season.
If the Hawks were to upset the Bonnies, a tremendous amount of agony would be bestowed upon the Brown and White. So much so that their season could only be revived if they were to win the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Hence why St. Bonaventure Coach Mark Schmidt wants his guys to concentrate on one game at a time, and cancel any outside distractions, such as bracketology.
“Our whole focus is on playing well at six o’clock [Saturday] night,” Schmidt said. “Then we will move on from there. We can’t look ahead. We can’t look back. We just have to keep our eye on the next opponent and that’s what we are doing.”
With this in mind, we have to look at the big picture to understand the importance of Saturday’s game in Philadelphia.
Right now, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the king of bracketology, has Bonaventure firmly on the bubble as one of the “Next Four Out” teams.
What does this mean?
Bona cannot lose another game if they want to make it into the NCAA Tournament as an At-Large team. Of course, they can sneak into the Big Dance if they win the Atlantic 10 Tournament, but winning three games in three days on a neutral floor is no easy task.
This brings us back to Saturday’s game at Hawk Hill.
The Bonnies cannot lose at St. Joseph’s, a game that poses some challenges.
“70% of home games are won by the home team so it’s always difficult to win on the road no matter who you are playing,” Schmidt noted. “[St. Joe’s] has a great crowd. [Hagan Arena] is a great gym to play in. Everybody plays better at home. Teams shoot the ball better at home, they are more comfortable at home. So it’s always a challenge to go on the road. You have to play that much better on the road if you want to win so we have a big challenge ahead of us [Saturday] night.”
Not only are road games tough, but beating the same team twice in one season is difficult too.
Especially this St. Joe’s team with Jordan Hall, Taylor Funk, Erik Reynolds II, and Ejike Obinna.
“[St. Joe’s] has really good players,” Schmidt said when asked about his team’s next opponent. “They have one of the top freshmen in the league [in Reynolds]. Hall is one of the better players in the league. The big guy [Obinna] inside gives them a presence. You have to do some stuff inside so that he can’t go one-on-one. And they have good shooters. Coach [Lange] is doing a really good job with them, they change defenses. They gave us a game at our place. It’s going to be another difficult game. They are a talented team with a good big guy.”
Let’s start with Hall and Funk.
Hall, a 6-foot-7 sophomore from Wildwood, New Jersey, currently leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.2 points per game (PPG). This season, he has converted on 35.4% of his three-point attempts but shoots much better inside Hagan Arena. Hall has drained 40.4% of his attempts from deep at home. He can score both inside and out. If Bona wants to win, priority number one is limiting Hall offensively. He scored just eight points back on Jan. 29 at the Reilly Center, which was a major reason why Bona prevailed.
Funk is also a tall guard/forward combo that can score in a variety of ways. Standing at 6-foot-8, Funk currently averages 13.2 PPG and shoots 41.2% from beyond the arc on his home floor. Funk scored just ten points against the Bonnies in their last meeting.
Then there’s Reynolds, who Schmidt dubbed as “one of the top freshman” in the Atlantic 10. He certainly lived up to that billing in the Reilly Center as he dropped 21 points on the Bonnies to lead his team. Jalen Adaway was the only other player to eclipse that mark and he finished with 22.
Reynolds does not shoot lights out from deep, but he can still score in bunches. Over his last seven games, including the one at the Reilly Center, Reynolds has averaged 17.0 PPG.
But this team revolves around Obinna, the transfer from Vanderbilt, who operates inside. He scored ten points and corralled seven boards against Bona back in January, as Osun Osunniyi did a good job defending him. Obinna leads the team in rebounding, averaging a little over seven per game.
The Hawks have talent but lack the experience that other teams in the conference have. This is evidenced within KenPom’s turnover percentage metrics. Offensively, the Hawks turn the ball over 19.2% of the time, which ranks 225th nationally and 11th in the conference. That’s not horrible, but it’s not good either. Where the Hawks struggle is with forcing turnovers. St. Joe’s forces turnovers on just 13.6% of their defensive possessions, which ranks 353rd in the country and dead last in the conference.
If the Hawks are going to beat this veteran Bonnie team, they will have to force turnovers to give themselves easy baskets.
And that’s exactly why the Bonnies are riding a six-game win streak. Bona has locked down defensively, out-rebounded teams, and forced turnovers during this stretch. Those three important items lead to easy baskets the other way.
Dominick Welch has been amazing defensively, as Mike Lindsley points out in his latest show. In Tuesday’s win over Rhode Island, Welch had three steals to go along with nine rebounds and nine points.
Lofton has been picking people’s pockets too. He currently averages 2.1 steals per game, which ranks second in the conference behind Richmond’s Jacob Gilyard.
Of course, Osunniyi has been phenomenal as well. He is closing in on the St. Bonaventure all-time blocks record and has yet to find himself in serious foul trouble so far this season.
Osunniyi has anchored the paint much more effectively in February than he did earlier in the season. Perhaps his ailing back, which was bothering him at the beginning of the season, has finally healed. He looks tremendous out there.
Bona’s defensive improvements are the reason why they are averaging 77.3 PPG during this win streak. For the season, Bona averages 72.0 PPG.
Hence why the “Iron-Man Five” are having so much fun.
But they cannot have too much fun to the point where they lose their focus on Saturday night. They need to lock down defensively, just as they have, and concentrate on getting the job done.
“We have a veteran team and they understand how difficult playing on the road is and how difficult it will be [Saturday] night,” Schmidt added.
It has been three weeks since Bonaventure felt “the agony of defeat” in Richmond. After that loss to the Spiders, all hope seemed lost. But the Bonnies have bounced back in an extraordinary fashion and are now in the driver’s seat to secure a double-bye in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Thanks to Richmond’s victory over St. Louis on Friday night, the Bonnies now have a 79% chance of advancing straight to the quarterfinal, according to @SBUnfurled.
What seemed impossible a short while ago now seems very possible.
And a major reason for this turnaround has been the play of Adaway, who currently leads the team in scoring by averaging 16.0 PPG. He has been a monster offensively. His turn-around jumpers have been phenomenal. His grit and tenacity to find a way to score have been even better.
Adaway scored 22 against St. Joe’s a month ago and I envision him replicating that performance in Philadelphia on Saturday. Give me the veteran Bonnies in a nail-biter on Hawk Hill.
St. Bonaventure 78, St. Joseph’s 74
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.