St. Bonaventure opened its 2018-2019 campaign with a disappointing overtime loss to the Bucknell Bison. With 12:13 left in this game, SBU junior-transfer Jaylen Poyser made a lay-up to extend the Bona lead to 13. From that point on, Bucknell outscored SBU 49 to 33; the Bona youngsters collapsed down the stretch. Although in the Patriot League, Bucknell has a solid back-court and the Bison were even selected to finish first in the Preseason Poll. They have made the NCAA Tournament seven of the last nine seasons. However, Coach Schmidt was not happy following his team’s collapse.
Following an easy win over Jackson State, one of the worst teams in the country according to KenPom, St. Bonaventure trekked up to Niagara and lost 80 to 72. Last season, with A-10 co-player of the year Jay Adams sidelined due to injury, St. Bonaventure lost its season opener to the Purple Eagles 77-75. Thus, Niagara’s win against Bona marked the first time the Purple Eagles have consecutive wins in this old Western New York rivalry since Niagara won eight consecutive from 2003 to 2010 under coach Joe Mihalich.
A week later, St. Bonaventure embarrassed themselves in the Cayman Islands Classic by losing three consecutive games to Georgia State, Boise State, and Akron. Bona lost each game by an average of 14 points. Thus, on Thanksgiving Day, St. Bonaventure had an abysmal record of 1-5. So much for making back to back NCAA Tournament appearances…
Why did St. Bonaventure get off to an atrocious start? One big reason: Courtney Stockard’s injury. Stockard has had quite the history of sustaining injuries. In a 2015 preseason practice, Stockard broke a bone in his right foot; he missed the entire 2015-2016 season when Marcus Posley and Jay Adams led St. Bonaventure to the NCAA Tournament… oh wait… the committee irrationally snubbed the Bonnies and they had to settle for the NIT. A few months following “the snub,” right before St. Bonaventure’s 2016-17 season opener against St. Francis, Stockard re-injured that same right foot and missed the entire season once again. Last season, Stockard did not suffer the same fate. In fact, without Stockard, St. Bonaventure may not have received an NCAA Tournament At-Large bid. He averaged 13.3 points per game for the season highlighted by a game-winner against Maryland, 19 points against Richmond in the A-10 Quarterfinals, and a 26 point outburst in a victory over UCLA in the First Four, which was Bonaventure’s first NCAA Tournament victory since its 1970 Final Four run led by Bob Lanier. Needless to say, Stockard made quite an impact last season.
This past off-season, Stockard underwent off-season surgery and he missed the Brown and White’s opening debacles. Stockard finally returned to Bona on November 28 in a home against Canisius. He entered the game at the 11:46 mark in the first half, with the Golden Griffins leading 11-9. A couple minutes later, with Canisius up 17-14, Stockard tied the game with a big three-point play. The Bonnies never looked back as they won handily 70 to 55. Stockard finished with 19 points, leading all scorers in the game.
Reasons for Optimism
1. Stockard Back
With Stockard now back in the rotation, St. Bonaventure has gone on to win by 39 against Delaware State and 42 against Siena. The Bonnies have not defeated the Siena Saints by more than 40 points since the mid-1950s. Stockard scored 16 and 17 points in each of these games, respectively. Granted, Delaware State and Siena are inferior opponents. But with Stockard back in the lineup, the Bonnies are 3-0 and have their Senior leader back.
With a home game upcoming against #17 Buffalo, the Bonnies face a very difficult test. Buffalo famously knocked off Arizona in last year’s NCAA Tournament and the Bulls return a lot of its key players. With Stockard playing, Bona has a chance: his versatility and length match-up well against the Bulls. Last season, Stockard scored 13 points and snagged nine rebounds when the Bonnies defeated the Bulls in Buffalo.
2. LaDarien Griffin Status
LaDarien Griffin, another vital Bonaventure Senior, has missed every game this season due to injury. Last season, Griffin sealed Bonaventure’s first ever victory at the Carrier Dome with a crucial block in the closing seconds. Additionally, he scored the game-winning basket when the Bonnies defeated Rhode Island on that cold night in Olean. Griffin’s versatility and staunch defensive abilities create opportunities for Bona. He was instrumental last season. Similar to Stockard when he was out, Griffin’s presence has been missed so far in Bonaventure’s 2018-19 campaign. With that said, some reports indicate that Griffin may return within the next two to three weeks. Three weeks from Saturday, on December 29, the Bonnies travel to the Carrier Dome to take on the Orange. Even if his minutes are limited, Griffin’s presence would help Mark Schmidt’s team tremendously against Boeheim’s Orange.
3. Youngsters Learning
In his 12 seasons at St. Bonaventure, Mark Schmidt has never had a recruiting class like this one. Schmidt plucked four-star big-man Osun Osunniyi away from Georgetown and Syracuse. Buffalo-native Dom Welch also comes to Bonaventure as Western New York’s all-time leading scorer. Unfortunately, Welch is likely out for the season with a broken foot; he will most likely be red-shirted. Additionally, Alpha Okoli and Kyle Lofton are talented guards with a lot of upside. Lofton leads the team in assists and is third on the team in averaging 13.1 points per game. Moreover, Jalen Poyser, who transferred from UNLV, looks to have an impact for Schmidt just like previous transfers Andell Cumberbatch, Marcus Posley, and Matt Mobley did so on past Bona teams. Right now, Poyser’s impact is felt as he leads the team by averaging 16.1 points per game.
As time rolls on, new players learn to play with each other. For the first six games, especially without their Senior leaders Stockard and Griffin, barely any valid cohesion existed among the newbies: Bona averaged 65 points a game. In their last three, with Stockard back, Bona has averaged 80 points per game. Now, nine games in, younger players are becoming more comfortable in their roles. For instance, Forward Osun Sunniyi has averaged 6.9 points per game and recorded his first career double-double against Canisius. With the more games he plays, his numbers will continue to climb. The same goes for the other new additions to Schmidt’s squad.
In the A-10 Talk Preseason Poll, I selected St. Bonaventure to finish sixth in the conference. Although they have struggled early on, I still think the Bonnies could finish at six. The silver lining to its early season struggles is that the newcomers got to play good minutes and gain valuable experience: that will only help in the long run.
The Bonnies have a difficult four game stretch ahead to cap off non-conference play: vs #17 Buffalo, at Vermont, at Northeastern, and at Syracuse. All four of these teams will likely participate in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Thus, if the Bonnies can finish 2-2 in this stretch, they will carry tremendous amounts of momentum heading into A-10 play. With Stockard back, and potentially Griffin returning soon, that is not entirely out of the realm of possibilities.