ST. BONAVENTURE N.Y. – The last time the St. Bonaventure Bonnies (5-0, 0-0) started a season with five consecutive wins, Bill Clinton had just been elected President of the United States. On Dec. 19, 1992, Bona, with Jim Baron in his first year coaching the Bonnies, defeated Northern Iowa 74-63. The victory improved Baron’s team’s to 5-0.
That was the last time that the Northern Iowa Panthers made the trip to the Reilly Center.
Ironically enough, this year’s Panthers (1-3, 0-0) head to the Southern Tier to take on an undefeated Bonaventure team once again. The game tips off on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN+.
Coming off an incredible weekend down in Charleston, the Bonnies find themselves ranked 16th in the AP Poll. Bona defeated Boise State, Clemson, and Marquette to go 3-0 in the Palmetto State and win the Charleston Classic crown.
But with all of this in mind, the Bonnies cannot afford to overlook an underrated Northern Iowa team.
“All that is guaranteed right now is [that we have] five wins and five wins is not going to be good enough,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt told the media Friday. “We had a great tournament [in Charleston] but that’s over with. It’s water under the bridge. We have had a week to prepare for Northern Iowa. Our guys have turned the page and they understand how good Northern Iowa is. They have our full attention.”
Scouting the Northern Iowa Panthers
Back in October, coaches from the Missouri Valley Conference selected Northern Iowa to finish third in the conference’s preseason poll. The Panthers return all five starters from a year ago, including AJ Green, who won the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year award in 2019-20. Last year, Green only played in three games before suffering a season ending hip injury.
Green, a 6-foot-5 guard from Cedar Falls, Iowa, currently averages 11.0 points per game (PPG). He shoots it well from the outside too.
“[In their] last game against Arkansas, he hit a ton of [threes],” Schmidt said when asked about Green. “He’s got a great stroke, high release, high IQ; he’s a really, really good player.”
Indeed, Green drained four from deep in Northern Iowa’s loss to Arkansas. He has made close to 37% of his attempts from three over the course of his career.
Along with Green, two other Panthers to watch out for are Trae Berhow and Austin Phyfe.
Berhow, a 6-foot-5 guard from Minnesota, went 7-for-11 against Arkansas from three-point range and led the team in scoring with 23 points. With that said, Berhow has displayed some inconsistency so far in this young season. The loss to Arkansas was the only game in which he has scored in double-figures.
— UNI Basketball (@UNImbb) November 18, 2021
But do not let that fool you, the fifth year senior has made over 40% of his three-point attempts throughout his career at Northern Iowa. He can flat out shoot the basketball.
Operating inside for the Panthers is Austin Phyfe, a 6-foot-9 forward who weighs 250 pounds.
Over the past two games, Phyfe has seen his minutes decline and he even failed to record a point against Arkansas. But he was selected to the Preseason All-Missouri Valley Second Team. He scored 20 against Nichols and 11 against Vermont in Northern Iowa’s first two games this year. A season ago, the big man averaged 12.4 PPG and 7.3 rebounds per game.
Northern Iowa is underrated, despite recording just one win so far this season; and that lone victory came against the University of Dubuque, a Division III school located in Dubuque, Iowa.
But the Panthers almost beat Arkansas. They led the Razorbacks by one point with 3:13 remaining, but Arkansas closed the game on a 16-2 run, winning by a final score of 93-80.
The game against Arkansas was the first time this season that Northern Iowa Coach Ben Jacobson had his roster at full strength. Jacobson’s squad fought hard against a top 20 team, a bona fide Final Four contender, proving that they are one of the best teams in the Missouri Valley.
Schmidt knows that this team is underrated too:
“[The Panthers] are a veteran team. They have had a ton of wins and they are well coached. They have seen it all. They have one of the best players in the country in AJ Green, he can shoot the ball. They can all shoot the ball, they made 17 threes against Arkansas. They are getting healthy now and they didn’t have their full team earlier in the year. They are dangerous, they shoot the heck out of the basketball and they have a big guy inside. They were picked high in their league for a reason: well coached, good players, and a veteran team that’s highly skilled.”
How Do The Bonnies Move to 6-0?
In last week’s victory over Marquette, Bona forward Osun Osunniyi played his best game of the season. Despite having a sore back, Osunniyi scored 16 points on 8 of 10 shooting, snagged ten rebounds, and recorded four blocks.
“He’s doing fine right now,” Schmidt said when I asked him about Osunniyi’s back. “He has had some back issues, but he’s practiced well for us and we don’t see any problems.”
That is excellent news for Bonnies fans as he is the most important player on the floor.
Aside from the second half comeback win against Clemson, in which Bona drained an unconscious 10 of 12 from three over the final 20 minutes, the Bonnies have struggled from beyond the arc. Currently, the Bonnies have made just 30% of their three-point attempts, which ranks 254th in the country, according to KenPom.
However, the Bonnies are still 5-0.
One of the main reasons for this is because they have had tremendous success attacking the rim and scoring in the paint. Last Sunday, Bona dominated Marquette inside, outscoring the Golden Eagles 50-18 in the paint.
This domination inside was actually a result of tremendous guard play. Both Kyle Lofton and Jaren Holmes have been able to slice their way inside, finish at the rim, or dish it to Osunniyi on the block, or to Jalen Adaway cutting in along the baseline, or to one of the sharpshooters on the outside. When the ball gets into the paint, the defense collapses, which only leads to good things for the offense.
The Bona guards need to attack the rim against Northern Iowa just as they did in Charleston.
Finally, the defense needs to keep playing like they are the 1985 Chicago Bears. Bona has yet to give up more than 65 points in a game this season.
According to KenPom, Bonaventure’s opponents are shooting just 38.5% from inside the arc, which ranks seventh in the country. They have also had tremendous success locking down the three-point line, as teams have shot just 29.9% from deep against the Bonnies.
The anchor to this defense is Osun Osunniyi, one of the greatest shot blockers in all of college basketball, and for the defense to be successful, he needs to be on the floor. It looks like he will be after some much needed rest after last week’s Charleston Classic.
The Bonnies have had a week off to rest, recuperate, and focus on Northern Iowa.
The Panthers are no slouch, but they are also not in the same class as the Bonnies either.
I envision Osunniyi having another big game as I think he will record yet another double-double. I also see the Bona defense stifling the Panther shooters in a low-scoring affair at the Reilly Center.
St. Bonaventure 66, Northern Iowa 53
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.