CHICAGO — Something has to give in the Windy City Saturday. The St. Bonaventure Bonnies will either pick up their first road victory of the season, or the Loyola Chicago Ramblers will win their first conference game as an Atlantic 10 member.
Regardless of the outcome, Saturday’s game marks the first time the Bonnies will face the Ramblers in league play.
The game tips off at 4 p.m. EST and will air on ESPN+.
“To have a team that has gone to the Final Four, with the success that they have had recently, in one of the greatest cities in the world, can only help us and the conference. We are happy [Loyola] accepted and joined our league,” said St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt when discussing the Atlantic 10’s newest addition. “They have struggled a little bit as of late, but when you watch them play, they’re right there. They’re tough and skilled, and when they take care of the basketball, they’re that much better. Like any game in the Atlantic 10, it will be a challenge. We need to play well to be successful.”
The Ramblers limp into Saturday’s game as the only team in the league that has yet to win in conference play.
In October, pollsters picked Loyola to finish 4th in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll.
Nobody thought they would begin their Atlantic 10 tenure with an 0-6 record. Yet, here we are, showing that preseason predictions mean nothing.
A big reason for Loyola’s struggles as of late has been their inability to take care of the ball.
In conference play alone, the Ramblers have turned it over on 22.2% of their possessions, per KenPom. That astronomically high mark ranks dead last in the Atlantic 10.
Loyola’s defense has also played terribly over the past month.
The Ramblers have the worst defensive efficiency of any Atlantic 10 team, per KenPom. They’ve also allowed their new conference foes to shoot 44.7% from 3-point range and make almost 60% of their attempts from inside the arc, according to KenPom. Both of these marks rank 15th in the league too.
In their six league games, Loyola Chicago’s opponents have averaged 83.9 points per game (PPG), which is not a recipe for success.
Thus, the Bonnies have a tremendous opportunity to put their road woes behind them against a weak Loyola defense.
“Our goal is to try and get a road win,” Schmidt noted. “Over the past few days, we have focused on playing well and consistently throughout the game. The effort and execution have not been consistent, and that’s why we have lost on the road. That’s what we are working on.”
The Bonnies must have a consistent effort against Loyola, or the Ramblers could run the Bonnies out of town.
To do so, Bona will need to stop Phillip Alston, Loyola’s leading scorer.
“It’ll take a team effort,” Schmidt said when I asked him how his team planned to stop Alston. “We can’t give him the low-post position. He runs in transition. He can shoot 3-pointers. He’s a well-rounded kid, inside and out, making him difficult to guard. He’s physical; he goes to the offensive glass and gets to the foul line. He’s a tough matchup, and he scores a lot of their points.”
Alston, the 6-foot-6 forward from Columbus, Ohio, transferred to Loyola after playing at the California University of Pennsylvania. A season ago, he recorded 21 double-doubles, the second most in Division II.
This year, he averages 14.6 PPG and grabs 5.8 rebounds per contest. Both those marks lead the Ramblers.
He also shoots 43% from beyond the arc.
He scored 23 points in a neutral-site game versus Clemson in Atlanta on Dec. 10, when Loyola beat the Tigers 76-to-58. Clemson has lost just once since, as they’re now in the Top 25 and sitting atop the ACC.
Alston also recorded 23 points at George Mason on Jan. 7, but the Patriots raced past the Ramblers 86-to-75.
Braden Norris and Marquise Kennedy are two veteran guards to watch out for too.
Norris, the 6-foot senior from Hilliard, Ohio, averages 10.8 PPG. He most recently scored 15 in the 76-to-59 loss to St. Louis on Jan. 18.
“He’s their leader,” Schmidt said of Norris. “He is a good combo guard who’s been there through their championship years.”
Norris originally began his collegiate career at Oakland University and then transferred to Loyola at the beginning of the 2019-20 season. He helped lead Loyola to the previous two NCAA Tournaments, including the 2021 Sweet Sixteen.
Alongside Norris in the backcourt stands Kennedy, the 6-foot-1 senior from Chicago, Illinois. He averages 8.9 PPG.
Yet, Kennedy suffered a knee injury in pregame warmups before last Wednesday’s game against St. Louis. His status versus St. Bonaventure is questionable.
If he cannot play, the Ramblers will have a tough time stopping the Bona backcourt, which has emerged as one of the better ones in the Atlantic 10 thanks to the recent play of Moses Flowers.
In conference play, the 6-foot-4 Flowers has averaged 11 PPG. The Dorchester, Massachusetts native did not score 11 points or more in any of Bonaventure’s non-conference games.
During this stretch, Flowers has become instant offense off the bench. He shoots almost 39% from 3-point range, explodes in transition, and does an excellent job rebounding. He even recorded five boards in Wednesday’s 65-to-56 victory over Duquense.
Kyrell Luc, who also hails from Dorchester, Massachusetts, located just south of Boston, has played remarkably well in conference play too.
In the Jan. 11 game at Rhode Island, when Bona lost narrowly 68-to-67, Luc scored 20 points, dished out nine assists, and grabbed seven rebounds. He followed that performance by scoring 17 in the home victory over Richmond on Jan. 14. Then he scored ten points and snagged a team-high eight boards against Duquesne.
Luc has scored in double-figures in every game but three, averaging 13.3 PPG for the year.
Although Luc has yet to complete an entire season donning the Brown and White, he is following in the footsteps of recent Bonaventure point guards who received all-conference recognition: Jaylen Adams and Kyle Lofton.
He has played well alongside Flowers and Daryl Banks III, who leads the Bonnies in scoring at 16.3 PPG.
Despite leading the team in scoring, Banks III, who captains this team with Flowers, has struggled to have an impact away from the Reilly Center.
In eight road games, Banks III has shot 25.9% from 3-point range while averaging 12.5 PPG. These are well below his season averages; he ranks first among all Atlantic 10 players in 3-point attempts, second in treys made per game, and third in 3-point FG%.
Schmidt has done an incredible job re-tooling his roster after he lost everyone from last year’s team that went to the 2022 NIT Semifinals. Bonaventure is one tip-in away at Rhode Island from having a 5-1 record in conference play.
Yet, 12 games remain on the conference slate, meaning it’s too early to peak at the standings.
“We are just trying to get better every day,” Schmidt noted. “We are only six games into [the conference season], but we have 12 more to go. We have taken care of [business] at home so far, but we need to play better on the road and better overall.”
Nonetheless, Schmidt and the Bonnies will try to further cement themselves among the Atlantic 10’s upper echelon at Loyola Chicago, whose athletic department is headed by Steve Watson, who hired Schmidt in 2007.
“Our relationship is so strong,” Schmidt said when talking about Watson. “[Watson] and Sister Margaret [Carney] gave me an opportunity. Those two were so influential and the reason why I am here. He’s a great leader. He’s doing a great job at Loyola Chicago. He’s a quality guy. A family guy who treats everyone with respect. He ran the athletic department here really well. It was a pleasure to work for him, and easy to work with him. But he’s the reason why I am here. I am not sure what I would be doing if it was not for him.”
I’m not so sure where St. Bonaventure would be without you too, Coach.
The Bonnies have to win on the road at some point this season, right?
Saturday’s game serves as the perfect opportunity.
With Loyola struggling to assimilate in the Atlantic 10 and Kennedy possibly missing this game, I like the Bonnies to improve to 5-2 in conference play and 11-9 overall.
Bona’s guards have played well as of late, and with Loyola missing a key piece in its backcourt, look for Luc, Banks III, and Flowers to continue their hot stretches.
Give me the Bonnies by a couple of possessions, as Bona picks up their first victory in Chicago since they defeated DePaul 79-to-68 on Dec. 5, 1970. Saturday’s game gets a bit unsettling at the end, but the Bonaventure guards seal the deal at the free-throw line to hand Loyola their 8th straight loss.
St. Bonaventure 75, Loyola Chicago 69
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.