The St. Bonaventure Bonnies (9-1, 7-1 Conf.) head to the Gateway City on Saturday afternoon to take on the St. Louis Billikens (7-3, 0-2 Conf.) at 2 pm on CBS Sports Network.
These two teams are trending in the opposite directions: St. Bonaventure has yet to lose in 2021 while St. Louis’s last victory came on December 23, 2020, against the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC).
Right after Christmas, St. Louis caught the virus, and subsequently, their scheduled games against Duquesne, UMASS, LaSalle, St. Joseph’s, Davidson, and St. Bonaventure, were all postponed. Reports have emerged that St. Louis Head Coach Travis Ford, and roughly eighty percent of the program, all tested positive for Covid-19 at some point.
With impressive non-conference wins over LSU and NC State, the Billikens found themselves ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 when the calendar flipped to 2021. The Bills remained ranked throughout their four-week hiatus. St. Louis has not won since, losing to Dayton on January 26 and (gulp) at LaSalle this past Wednesday. They have since fallen out of the rankings.
Before we take a deeper dive into the Billikens, let’s discuss the impact of LaSalle’s victory over St. Louis.
LaSalle Spoiling the Party, Again
Ever since their magical run to the Sweet Sixteen in 2013, the LaSalle Explorers have failed to finish a season above .500 in conference play. LaSalle has lived in the struggles of mediocracy as they have not attained a winning record since the 2014-15 season. That year, the Explorers finished 17-16 and lost to Davidson in the Quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
This year, however, LaSalle has scored wins over Dayton, Richmond, and St. Louis. Then again, LaSalle has already lost six conference games as they possess a measly 5-6 record in the Atlantic 10 to this point.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Explorers are here to spoil the party once again.
As I mentioned on the most recent A10 Talk podcast, St. Bonaventure fans know all too well about LaSalle playing spoiler.
In 2016, the Bonnies lost at Tom Gola Arena on a snowy Wednesday night in mid-February. If St. Bona wins that game, then perhaps Marcus Posley and Denzel Gregg get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, LaSalle upset the Bonnies again on Olney Avenue. This loss made it extremely difficult for the Bonnies to secure a double-bye in Brooklyn. A victory in Philly would have all but secured a top-four spot in the conference tournament that never happened.
St. Bonaventure point guard Kyle Lofton put it simply, yet perfectly in his Thursday press conference: “anyone in this league can beat anyone on any night.” Look at what LaSalle has done this season, as the meme above indicates.
And, LaSalle, with a KenPom ranking of 166, could be the reason why the Atlantic 10 sends only one team to Indianapolis for the 2021 NCAA Tournament. This, of course, would be detrimental to the conference’s finances and stature, as I outlined last week.
LaSalle lurks around the corner as the Bonnies will host the Explorers next Wednesday.
Why Are We Discussing LaSalle Leading Into the St. Louis Game?
St. Louis’s loss to LaSalle essentially wipes out one of their marquee non-conference wins. Before the loss, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi labeled St. Louis as one of the last teams in his projected NCAA Tournament field. Now, the Bills are on the outside looking in, along with two other Atlantic 10 teams:
Furthermore, St. Louis fell 15 spots in the NET ratings and 11 spots on KenPom due to this loss. St. Louis currently ranks 53rd in both the NET and KenPom. This plummet impacts the Bonnies greatly. A Bona victory over St. Louis does not carry the weight that it would have a month ago when the AP had the Billikens ranked 22nd in the country.
Speaking of rankings, national basketball writers are beginning to recognize the Bonnies. Last week, Bona received six votes in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll. This week, the writers awarded the Bonnies with 19.
I tweeted earlier in the week that victories over both St. Joe’s and St. Louis would vault St. Bonaventure into the Top 25 for the first time since 1971. But with the postponement of the game at Hawk Hill and with the Billikens slipping, I’m not so sure that this remains the case. If the Bonnies defeat St. Louis Saturday, I doubt that they will find themselves in the Top 25 come Monday. The loss to LaSalle clearly hurts both St. Louis and St. Bonaventure.
But if Bonaventure is somehow ranked for the first time since 1971, that would obviously be terrific. Although AP rankings do not matter in the grand scheme of things, they do bring a lot of attention to mid-major programs. Just look at Dayton last year, as the Flyers rocketed up the rankings and were nationally recognized by all. If the Bonnies can get into the Top 25, then everyone will have their eye on them, which can only aid their chances at getting an at-large bid.
Scouting the Billikens
Even though St. Louis has yet to win this calendar year, the Bonnies cannot afford to take them lightly. In the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, the conference selected the Billikens to finish second. As noted above, St. Louis was nationally ranked for over a month. Nonetheless, this is St. Bonaventure’s toughest, and most important, game to date.
The physicality of St. Louis starts with Hasahn French, the 6’7″ forward from Middletown, NY. French weighs in at 240 pounds, and he is not afraid to toss his weight around. He currently averages 8.9 points per game (PPG) and 6.3 rebounds per contest.
Jordan Goodwin leads the conference in averaging 10.6 rebounds per game. Goodwin stands at just 6’3″ but plays much bigger as he leaps all over the floor fighting for any loose ball. He plays rather physically too.
In Thursday’s press conference, St. Bonaventure guard Dominick Welch noted that “[St Louis] is so physical. They’re so tough. They rebound well. I believe they have a +10 rebounding margin.” Indeed, St. Louis is the best rebounding team in the conference. Both Welch and Lofton noted that St. Bona will have to match their toughness to have success against them.
Lofton added, “the biggest challenge in playing the Billikens is their physicality and their athleticism.”
Coach Ford has another great defensive team on his hands as the Bills rank 62nd in the country in terms of defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Additionally, St. Louis forces a turnover on 22.8% of their possessions, good for 27th nationally.
St. Louis plays tough, using their physical play to force poor shot selection and turnovers.
Guards Javonte Perkins, Jordan Goodwin, and Gibson Jimmerson all average more than ten points per game. In fact, St. Louis ranks first in the conference in scoring, averaging 81.7 PPG. The Bills also rank in the Top 50 in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.
The Bills can score from both inside and out, as Hasahn French is second in the conference in shooting 58.9% from the field. He makes a living inside. Meanwhile, both Perkins and Jimerson shoot 44% from beyond the arc. When the offense gets rolling, St. Louis is very difficult to stop.
Last season against St. Bonaventure, Perkins scored 15 points in just 22 minutes of play coming off the bench. He can really score at all three levels.
Then there is Yuri Collins, the sophomore point guard, who leads the conference in averaging 7.1 assists per game. He is a classic floor general who looks to pass first. Collins has yet to have a game in which he failed to record five assists. Without him, who knows where St. Louis would be.
The offense does not stop there as Demarius Jacobs will come off the bench to provide a spark. Jacobs, the 6’2″ Junior guard from Chicago, averages 7.2 PPG and sees roughly 18 minutes per contest. Bonaventure will also have to watch out for Marten Linssen, the Junior from Germany, and Junior guard Fred Thatch. Both Thatch and Linssen got ample minutes against Dayton and LaSalle. The two combined for 16 points in the loss in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
According to KenPom, St. Louis rarely turns the ball over and their effective field goal percentage ranks 24th in the country. The Billikens are terrific when they have the ball, even though they find themselves on a two-game skid.
How Do the Bonnies Escape Missouri with a Win?
Rest assured that St. Bonaventure Head Coach Mark Schmidt desperately wants this victory. The last time the Bonnies visited St. Louis, the Billikens dominated every phase of the game, winning 72-49 on March 7, 2020; the last game of the season for both teams.
Before that game, these two teams met in the last Atlantic 10 Championship game on March 17, 2019. It feels as if Nelson Kaputo’s three from the right corner is still hanging in the air… but St. Louis prevailed by two as they earned a trip to the Big Dance.
Now the Billikens are desperate, as they have fallen into a slump. Can the Bonnies hand St. Louis a third consecutive loss?
Well, the Bonnies will win if (1) Osun Osunniyi outlasts Hasahn French, (2) Bona competes on the boards, and (3) Bona keeps the St. Louis shooters in check.
Osun Versus Hasahn
In the loss to LaSalle on Wednesday, Hasahn French fouled out of the game and tallied only 17 minutes of action. He is so important to the Billikens on both sides of the ball. His physicality can dictate the game.
On offense, French ranks fourth in the conference in effective field goal percentage, according to KenPom.
Whereas Forward Osun Osunniyi, who stands at 6’10” and weighs 220 lbs, has done a much better job in limiting his hacks as of late. In Bonaventure’s lone loss to Rhode Island back on December 30, Osunniyi fouled out of the game and spent most of his time on the bench.
If we look at last week’s victory over George Mason, Osunniyi dominated both offensively and defensively. Even though he ended up with four fouls, he still managed to play 27 minutes and recorded a double-double in having 18 points and 15 rebounds. Although Mason does not have a Hasahn French down low, both Josh Oduro and AJ Wilson pose as a formidable frontcourt for the Patriots. Yet, Osunniyi played his best game of the year.
If Osunniyi can outlast French, then the Bonnies have a great chance of winning.
Guards Jaren Holmes, Dom Welch, and combo guard Jalen Adaway should drive right at French to try and draw fouls against him. LaSalle did so successfully, Bona must replicate that gameplan.
As I have said before, Osunniyi cannot get himself into foul trouble. He is the only Bonnie that could thwart French inside and he needs to play as many minutes as possible. If Osun can play 28+ minutes, the Bonnies, at the very least, will be competitive in this matinee.
Crash the Boards
St. Louis is the best rebounding team in the conference. Jordan Goodwin can leap through the roof as I mentioned above. French obviously uses his physical play to crash the boards successfully.
The Bonnies have rebounded the basketball well as of late too. As Coach Schmidt has noted before, corralling defensive rebounds is so important because second chance opportunities usually result in a made basket or a foul. In playing a team as good as St. Louis, the Bonnies cannot afford to gift the Bills second chances.
This is not to say that Bona needs to have more rebounds than St. Louis. Rather, they cannot afford to get dominated on the glass like they did last season. As it stands right now, St. Bonaventure has a +5.0 rebounding margin while St. Louis officially has a +8.6 margin.
The Bonnies must compete in the rebounding battle to have a chance.
The Three Ball
Whoever makes more threes in this game will likely prevail. Perhaps a blatantly obvious point, but an important one.
St. Bonaventure has struggled from beyond the arc so far this season, but Dom Welch has been on fire as of late. Over his last three games, Welch has made 12 threes on 17 attempts.
Meanwhile, Kyle Lofton has made only three long-balls so far this season. When asked about these struggles, Kyle said, “I haven’t got as many good shots as I have in the past. I think teams are playing me much harder. I’m barely getting any good looks. If you look at my threes, I’m either shooting last-second shot-clock shots or I’m not getting catch-and-shoot looks. I’m still confident. I’m going to keep shooting.”
On the other side of the ball, St. Bonaventure ranks third in the Atlantic 10 in allowing its opponents to hit only 30% of their three-point attempts. Bona’s perimeter defense has been nothing short of fantastic so far this season. This needs to continue on Saturday as the Billikens shoot 37.4% from beyond the arc, good for 39th in the country.
However, the long hiatus clearly impacted St. Louis’s shooting. In their two conference games played, St. Louis shot a putrid 22% from deep. The Billikens combined to make only seven threes with five of those coming from Gibson Jimmerson.
Earlier this season, Bona underwent a tough stretch shooting the basketball. At the time, Coach Schmidt said that the hardest part about shooters getting back in their rhythm is getting their legs back underneath them.
Shooting is all in the legs, and perhaps St. Louis is still not in the shape that they were in back in December. This will be very interesting to watch, considering St. Bonaventure has had the week off while St. Louis had to travel to Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Both these teams are not great from beyond the arc. But this game could come down to who makes the big shot late.
Saturday’s game between the Bonnies and the Billikens is the game of the year in the mighty Atlantic 10 conference. Both teams have NCAA Tournament aspirations and both teams will likely find themselves on the bubble when the calendar flips to March.
A win for the Bonnies would give them another Quad 1 victory while a victory for St. Louis will help the Billikens climb out of their slump and back into the NCAA Tournament picture.
Last week, on the A10 Talk Podcast, I predicted that St. Louis would win by three points. But after seeing how sluggish the Billikens looked against LaSalle, and knowing that the Bonnies have had a full week of rest, I am changing my pick. I think both Welch and Osunniyi have big games again and the Bonnies keep rolling.
Prediction: St. Bonaventure 72, St. Louis 69.