ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. – As the calendar flips from 2022 to 2023, a new basketball season begins in the form of conference play. Two teams trending in opposite directions, the 9-3 UMass Minutemen and the 6-7 St. Bonaventure Bonnies, will duel at the Reilly Center Saturday.
This New Year’s Eve matinee will be both teams’ first Atlantic 10 game.
The game tips off at 2 p.m. and will air on ESPN+.
First year head coach Frank Martin and his UMass Minutemen arrive in Western New York with nine victories already. The Minutemen most recently defeated Dartmouth 68-to-57 on Dec. 20.
Things have gone well for Martin and company so far, but UMass knows all about the challenges that the Bonnies bring—even though Bona has lost four straight. With that said, Bona has won nine consecutive games versus the Minutemen.
“St. Bonaventure is one of the better-coached teams we will play all year,” Martin said during Friday’s session with the media. “Mark [Schmidt] has been here for 16 years, and they have a great home-court environment. They have built a great program about winning during his tenure. And he has a bunch of new guys, as we all do, and trying to connect those players is a challenge that we all deal with. But they have some explosive guards in [Daryl] Banks and Kyrell Luc. Those two guys can score. They both play with athleticism and pop. [Chad Venning] is a load in the low post. And Mark, like he always does, uses his bigs in the low post.
“He does all kinds of stuff with them. They play old-fashioned basketball, which I love. They are going to stress our defense because they still set screens other than ball screens. Watching them and preparing for them has been fun because it’s the way I enjoy basketball being played. We have a challenge on our hands. In a road game and a league game, we have to trust who we are and play the best we can.”
Banks, the 6-foot-3 junior guard from Somerset, New Jersey, leads the Bonnies in scoring, averaging 15.6 points per game (PPG). After scoring 18 points in the Dec. 16 loss to Florida Gulf Coast, Banks had just 11 against Siena on Dec. 19 and then ten at Northern Iowa on Dec. 21. Banks has made 36.5% of his 3-point attempts thus far, yet he has struggled with his shot on the road.
In Bona’s two most recent games, the former St. Peter’s Peacock combined to shoot 3-of-15 from beyond the arc. Yet, thankfully for Banks and the Bonnies, he has made 45.3% of his attempts from deep in the Reilly Center this season. He wants to get back on track against a tough UMass squad, a team that rebounds and defends the perimeter well. The Minutemen’s opponents have shot just 29.4% from 3-point range, which ranks 46th nationally per KenPom.
But 3-point shooting will not determine the victor of this game.
The battle of the paint will.
Both coaches know this too as they love tough, physical basketball.
“I don’t adapt because analytics tell me to adapt,” Martin confidently stated. “I don’t need some guy that studies on a computer for a living to tell me what wins on the field or the court. I was a math teacher; I can spin numbers any way you want me to, to make you believe whatever I want you to believe. That’s the truth about statistics. I can use them, whoever I choose to create a mindset and trick you into what I want you to think. The game is won in the paint. Whoever wins the paint wins the game. If I win the paint battle, I get open 3-pointers on the perimeter. If I don’t win the paint battle, we don’t get any 3-pointers. And that’s the way I believe it. You also have to get to the foul line and take good shots. But here is another one, just because you get the ball in the paint and shoot it does not make it a good shot. If you are defended in the paint, then pass it.
“But at the end of the day, a personality must be created by getting the ball in the paint. That’s the toughness. When I talk about [Tom] Brady and [the New England Patriots], and how they always had an excellent offensive line and a good running game, you might look good throwing the ball 50 yards down the field every play. Still, you’re not making the playoffs if you don’t have the personality to get that ball between the tackles. It’s not happening. You better run the ball in between the tackles, and you better block. In basketball, it’s the same concept as getting the ball into the paint. That’s what wins games.”
This UMass team certainly has the personality of a tough and physical team.
The Minutemen grab 39 rebounds per game and love to pound the rock inside. Last season, 43.1% of UMass’ shot attempts came from beyond the arc. This season, that mark has dwindled to just 27.7%, as only nine other teams in the country attempt fewer 3-pointers per game.
“They are a physical team,” Schmidt said when asked about this UMass squad. “They have [TJ] Weeks and [Noah] Fernandes back, who are two very good players. [UMass] tries to get the ball into the paint, they rebound the heck out of the ball, and they deny one pass away. They are just a really physical team, which is different than what they were a year ago. [Dyondre] Dominguez, who did not play a lot last year, is playing really well for them this year. They have some good returners and veteran portal guys who are 24-to-25-year-old men that play physically.”
Weeks, the 6-foot-4 junior guard from Warwick, Rhode Island, averages 9.6 PPG and grabs 4.5 rebounds per game. He can also heat up like a microwave, shooting 44.7% from the perimeter. Interestingly enough, Weeks has shot the ball better on the road, as he has drained 54.5% of his 3-point attempts in the five road games UMass has had to date.
Martin’s Minutemen will also get a significant boost on Saturday as Fernandes returns to the lineup for the first time since spraining his ankle Dec. 2 against Harvard. Fernandes, the 5-foot-11 senior from Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, is the quarterback of this team. “Mr. Massachusetts” scored 18 points in that tilt against the Crimson, and he currently averages 11.4 PPG. With that said, he’s only played in seven of the Minutemen’s 12 games.
Matt Cross leads the team in scoring, averaging 12.1 PPG. The transfer from Louisville, who stands at 6-foot-7 and hails from Beverly, Massachusetts, has fit into Martin’s system nicely. Cross can score at all three levels and creates problems for opposing teams. He most recently scored 16 points against Dartmouth.
For the Bonnies to get back in the winning circle, they will have to defend the paint and match the Minutemen’s physicality.
“We must rebound, take care of the basketball, and defend the post,” Schmidt said when I asked him how his team planned on playing physically against Martin’s Minutemen. “It’s going to be a great challenge for our young guys, but that’s what we have to do. [UMass] averages 39 rebounds per game, and they turn people over a lot. If we don’t match their toughness, we will not have a chance to win.”
Bona will have to attack the paint, either off the dribble from Banks, Luc, or Moses Flowers or by feeding Chad Venning inside.
Luc, who averages 14.0 PPG, will square up against Fernandes. Fewer players work harder than Luc does defensively. But Luc will have his hands full in trying to get Fernandes from slicing through the Bonaventure defense.
During this four-game skid, Bona’s defense has not been the issue. The offense has been non-existent. The Bonnies have averaged just 59.3 PPG during this stretch, a mark that will not win too many games.
With that said, Flowers, the 6-foot-4 guard who transferred to Bona from Hartford, has seen his minutes increase.
“He’s playing more confidently and scoring the ball a bit more,” Schmidt said. “The concern for us is when we go with Moses [Flowers], we get small because we have to move Daryl [Banks] to the three. Teams are scouting us now so they’re not playing certain guys [how they may have before]. Our spacing is a little bit messed up because of it. But Moses allows our spacing to get better, we just become small. We need him coming off the bench, putting the ball in the basket, and defending. And he’s done better with that over the past couple of weeks.”
Bonaventure’s offensive spacing has certainly looked off as of late. Offensive sets are not as crisp. Shots inside are not falling. 3-pointers have been few and far between too.
Schmidt is concerned about how his team looks offensively, hence why Barry Evans’ playing time has somewhat diminished.
“Barry [Evans] has to continue to work on his jump shot,” Schmidt said when asked about Evans. They’re [giving him space], so that causes us to have some problems with spacing and getting the ball inside. When he’s active and going to the offensive glass, he’s a very effective player. He needs to continue to do that, and like all freshmen, he needs to work on his deficiencies. And coaches scout. They take away your strengths and make you play to your weaknesses. Barry is on a little bit of a learning curve right now, but he will be a really good player for us.”
After scoring ten points against Cleveland State on Dec. 7, the last time Bona won, Evans has scored just seven combined points since. He will want to get conference play started on the right foot. It remains to be seen if Schmidt will adjust the starting lineup.
Nonetheless, Evans can return to a groove by driving and cutting to the basket.
After all, whoever scores more in the paint will win the game.
“It’s blue-collar style,” Schmidt added about UMass. “Frank [Martin] is a no-nonsense guy, and his team plays like that. It’s old school, but I think both Frank and I feel the same way that old school is the right school. It’s physical basketball. The team that wins the paint will win the game. You watch his team play, and they take on his personality.”
This game will be an absolute slugfest where points are at a premium.
Both teams play at a slow pace, love to grind it out and work the ball inside.
The Bonnies and the Minutemen have also played well defensively throughout their non-conference schedules.
Although Fernandes is back for UMass, something tells me that the Bonnies will limit his production and stymie the Minutemen offense on their home floor.
I see Banks III rounding back into form, hitting a couple of big shots down the stretch, and leading his Bonnies to a victory to cap off a wild calendar year for the Brown and White.
Give me the Bonnies by a bucket in a 15-round heavyweight title fight.
St. Bonaventure 59, Massachusetts 57
Jack Milko is a current graduate student at St. Bonaventure University. He will graduate with an M.A. in Sports Journalism in May 2023. He also covers the Bonnies for @A10Talk. Follow him on Twitter @Jack_Milko.
Featured image courtesy of Dan Nelligan, St. Bonaventure ’20.