AMHERST, Mass. — The days are getting longer. Warmer weather is around the corner. March has arrived, which means the madness of college basketball is here.
Most of the 363 teams in college basketball will not make it to the NCAA Tournament, as only 68 teams will dance their way in.
But what makes March so fun, and so enjoyable, are all the conference tournaments that lead up to the Big Dance.
The Atlantic 10 Tournament is no different.
Chaos ensues, and chalk rarely prevails. Over the past ten years, only two teams, the 2013 St. Louis Billikens and the 2021 St. Bonaventure Bonnies, have won the Atlantic 10 Tournament as the number one overall seed.
Considering the rollercoaster ride that has been the 2023 Atlantic 10 season, this year’s edition will likely prove the same.
The VCU Rams will enter the 2023 Tournament as the number-one seed, having won the Atlantic 10’s regular season title this past week.
The Rams advance straight to the Quarterfinals and will face the winner of the Second Round matchup between the eighth and ninth seeds.
Heading into Saturday’s game at UMass, the Bonnies currently sit in eighth place in the Atlantic 10. If Bona beats the Minutemen, the Brown and White will wear their home jerseys as the eighth seed at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning at the Barclays Center.
Bona can climb no higher than eight.
If the Bonnies falter in Western Massachusetts, they risk dropping to the tenth seed, where they would face 15th-seeded Loyola Chicago on Tuesday afternoon in the First Round.
A lot is on the line at UMass, but to St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt, Saturday’s game is no different than the 30 others this team has already played. The game tips off at 2:30 p.m. and will air nationally on USA Network.
“Every game is extremely important, no matter if you are fighting for 15th or 14th, or first,” Schmidt told the media. “You want to have momentum going into the Atlantic 10 Tournament, but every game is big. You only have 31 of them. These kids kill themselves all year for 31 opportunities; you can’t let one slide. This game is no more important than our first game.”
The Bonnies enter Saturday’s game at UMass with a 14-16 record, while the Minutemen stand at 14-15 overall.
But UMass has lost seven of their last eight.
If you thought the Bonnies had a bad February, Frank Martin’s Minutemen fared far worse during the year’s shortest month.
The Minutemen’s lone win during this stretch came at lowly Rhode Island on Feb. 18, a 69-to-45 victory in Kingston.
Nonetheless, the Minutemen play physically, fully embracing their Coach’s personality of playing hard-nosed, tough basketball.
“They are a power team,” Schmidt said of UMass. “The guards try to get to the rim; the big guy tries to seal. They play a power game. They’re the best rebounding team with the best differential. We’re not the biggest team, so playing physical and not fouling will be a big concern.”
UMass also loves to crash the glass offensively, as they rank 30th nationally in offensive rebound percentage, per KenPom.
Overall, the Minutemen average 38.0 rebounds per game, which ranks second in the Atlantic 10.
They also lead the league in tempo, as UMass loves to race up and down the floor.
Yet, this physical team has struggled down the stretch due to injuries.
Star guard Noah Fernandes has not played since mid-January.
Forward Matt Cross, the 6-foot-7 junior from Beverly, Massachusetts, averages 12.9 points per game (PPG). He has not played since Valentine’s Day. Yet, Cross may suit up Saturday against the Bonnies, per A10 Talk’s Michael Bergman:
UMass F Matt Cross (knee) may play tomorrow vs St. Bonaventure, per Associate HC Allen Edwards. Optimistic Cross will give it a go.
UMass HC Frank Martin (illness) was not at practice today, sickness hitting the team lately. Should be back tomorrow.
— Michael Bergman (@MLBergman_) March 3, 2023
If Cross does not play, R.J. Luis will trot out as the Minutemen’s leading scorer. The freshman from Miami, Florida averages 11.4 PPG. He scored 11 points at the Reilly Center on New Year’s Eve, when the Bonnies trounced the Minutemen 83-to-64 thanks to 31 points from Daryl Banks III.
Speaking of Banks III, the 6-foot-3 junior from Somerset, New Jersey scored a career-high 36 points in Bona’s 89-to-76 victory over St. Joseph’s on Feb. 26.
In that game, which snapped a five-game Bonaventure losing streak, Banks III converted on 10-of-18 from the floor, which included four 3-pointers.
“You want shooters to keep on shooting,” Schmidt said of Banks III. “You have to be smart. You can’t take contested ones. But guys like him will always take a couple of questionable ones, but you have to allow that to happen. He has a great stroke. And we expect him to shoot the ball when he is open.”
Before last Sunday’s game, Banks III had struggled somewhat during Atlantic 10 play.
Although he currently averages 15.8 PPG, which leads his team, Banks III eclipsed that mark just three times since Feb. 1.
One of those came against the Hawks.
“Daryl had 36, and that helps,” Schmidt said. “When a guy scores 36, you are going to score some points. But if he has his average game with 15 points, then we are back down below 70 again. We need to win by playing defense and rebounding; we won’t win by outscoring teams—at least not this year. It was the first game we won when the opposing team scored more than 69 points. That tells you what we need to do to be successful.”
The Bonnies need to rely on their defense against UMass.
But they will also need to exploit the Minutemen defense, which ranks 13th in the Atlantic 10 in terms of defensive efficiency.
Getting the ball inside to Chad Venning, who averages 12.4 PPG, will help achieve that.
Venning, who stands at 6-foot-10, should get a look for an Atlantic 10 all-conference team. He has played well against some of the conference’s premier big men. But the key for him is avoiding foul trouble.
If he can do that against UMass, the Bonnies will have a good chance at victory.
Nevertheless, any game away from the Reilly Center has proven difficult for this team, as they have posted a record of 2-10 in true road games this season.
“It’s going to be a really difficult game, just like any conference game,” Schmidt said. “We beat them in game one on our home court, but they want to hold their home court—so there is a lot of motivation on their side. But there’s motivation on our side too. As I said earlier, this is one of 31 games, and we want to play as well as we can and win our last regular season game.”
Way back before the season, I wrote about how the Bonnies had a “favorable” conference schedule down the stretch, which would allow them to avoid the First Round at the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
I also noted how a late bye would help this team recharge their batteries and gear up for the madness of conference tournament play.
As all Bona fans know by now, the Brown and White stumbled down the stretch.
However, having six days off at this point in the season is a tremendous advantage.
UMass lost at Duquesne Wednesday, 88-79. According to KenPom, that game had 75 possessions, which means these two teams played at a higher-than-average pace.
The Minutemen and the Dukes flew up and down the floor, which leads me to believe UMass may enter Saturday’s matinee a little fatigued.
The Bonnies, meanwhile, are well-rested and need a victory to avoid the First Round.
Give me the Brown and White in a close matchup, as Bona spoils Senior Day in Amherst.
St. Bonaventure 69, Massachusetts 66
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, and photographer for A10 Talk.