BUFFALO, N.Y. – A month ago, atop the Hearst Tower in New York City, the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure celebrated three distinguished alums for their terrific contributions to journalism. Margaret Sullivan, the former editor of The Buffalo News and The New York Times, served as the keynote speaker for this event. During her remarks, Sullivan reminisced about growing up in Lackawanna, a suburb south of Buffalo. In doing so, she discussed the “Little Three.”
“When I was a child growing up,” Sullivan said, “I listened to the radio, and for some reason, I grew very interested in Little Three basketball, which, as I recall, consisted of Niagara University, St. Bonaventure University, and Canisius College.”
The ties between these three small Catholic colleges in Western New York run deep, even among those with no affiliation with the schools.
And they have for decades.
So on Saturday night, at the Koessler Center in Downtown Buffalo, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies will take on the Canisius Golden Griffins to add a chapter to this historic rivalry. The game tips at 7:00 p.m. and will air on ESPN+.
“The Little Three has been going on forever–even since before I was born,” joked Mark Schmidt, who holds a record of 9-4 against Canisius as St. Bonaventure’s head coach. “It’s always a good game, no matter if we play them here or there because of this rivalry. But the Koessler Center is a tough venue to play in when it’s packed.”
Despite drawing comparisons to a high school arena, the Koessler Center has given visiting teams fits over the years. The Bonnies have won just once in the Koessler Center since 2000, and that victory came on Dec. 6, 2017, when Jaylen Adams led the way with 20 points.
A season ago, the Canisius Golden Griffins won just ten games. Yet, nine of those victories came at home. The Griffs finished the season with a home record of 9-5.
With that said, the Golden Griffins dropped their season opener at home against Youngstown State last Monday 92-to-81.
“[The Griffs] play really fast and try to get the ball up the court quickly,” Schmidt noted when I asked him what he saw on film. “They shot 33 3-pointers against [Youngstown State]. They have some experience. Fritz inside always gives us trouble, as he’s had a couple of double-doubles against us. But their guards are good too. We have to try to keep them in front of us and limit them from open threes. They will make some, but we have to make it hard on them.”
Jacco Fritz stands at 6-foot-10 and hails from the Netherlands. Although he recorded just one basket against the Penguins, Fritz has the size and experience to give interior defenses trouble.
Like the Bonnies, Coach Reggie Witherspoon employs a committee approach for the Canisius big men. George Maslennikov, a native of Odessa, Ukraine, earned the start in the opener. He also recorded just two points.
Bryce Okpoh, who stands at 6-foot-7, joins Fritz and Maslennikov in this rotation. He played 25 minutes, the most recorded of this trio, and scored a dozen against the Penguins. Okpoh does not shoot from distance, so look for him to score inside against the Bona frontcourt.
Out on the perimeter, Canisius has a solid backcourt with quick and athletic guards.
Tahj Staveskie and Jamir Moultrie scored 19 points apiece in the opener. Both guards can shoot the ball.
Staveskie, a freshman from Sandusky, Ohio, knocked down three 3-pointers against Youngstown State. Although he missed seven other attempts, the 6-foot guard is known for being a knockdown shooter.
Moultrie drained 41.8% of his attempts from beyond the arc a season ago. The Wilmington, Delaware native began his collegiate career at La Salle, where he spent two seasons and averaged roughly a dozen minutes per game. From there, Moultrie bounced around to North Carolina Central and Kennesaw State before settling down in Buffalo. He made 5-of-8 from deep on Monday night in his Canisius debut.
Overall, the Griffs play as the 28th fastest team in the country, per KenPom. They have taken good care of the ball to this point too. With that said, this team lacks a solid defensive front.
Youngstown State had a 61.9% effective field goal percentage (eFG%) against Canisius, per KenPom. eFG% adjusts for a 3-point field goal counting for one more point than a 2-point field goal.
The Bonnies hope to emulate the success that Youngstown State had on Saturday.
To do so, the Brown and White must get to the paint and win the battle inside.
In the second half of the opening night win against St. Francis, the Bonnies made 52% of their field goal attempts. They did so without making a 3-point field goal, as I noted in my five takeaways. Bona, specifically Kyrell Luc and Daryl Banks, facilitated the pick-and-roll beautifully with Chad Venning and Anouar Mellouk. The guards found freshman Barry Evans on a few backdoor cuts as well.
Not only does attacking the paint lead to success, but it will keep this game from turning into a track meet, which plays into Canisius’ hands.
Bona cannot settle for 3-pointers. If they do, those long rebounds will allow the Griffs to get out and run. That’s how St. Francis battled back in the first half on Monday.
“I thought we got out of the gate well against St. Francis. We were up 27-to-17,” Schmidt said. “But then we did not execute great [to finish] the first half. We did not get the ball to the paint. We did not do a good job on the backboard in the first half [either].”
Luc and Banks have proven that they can shoot over their collegiate careers. But they should only shoot when they have the green light. On Monday, the Bonnies made 4-of-19 of their attempts from beyond the arc. The Brown and White cannot force the long ball.
Of course, Moses Flowers’ return to the lineup will help take the pressure off Luc and Banks. He missed Monday’s opener due to a concussion sustained in practice last Sunday. Schmidt seemed optimistic that he would clear protocol and return to the lineup on Saturday.
As in every game, controlling the paint and winning the battle of the boards are the keys to victory. The Bonnies won the rebounding battle by just one against the Frankies. Considering the Griffs play smaller than the Bonnies, Bona must win the glass. Easier said than done, however.
Stats aside, Bona’s first road game of the season will test this young group.
“We are a young team, and we are still learning [how to play with] each other,” Schmidt noted. “We are still learning the system. We lack a lot of experience. Canisius has a bunch of older guys. We have a bunch of younger guys. But these guys will learn you must play hard for 40 minutes against anybody.”
I explained how this Little Three rivalry runs deep in Western New York.
It runs deep in my own family too. My father graduated from St. Bonaventure, and my mother graduated from Canisius College. Pretty funny, right?
Family jokes aside, the Bonnies have the better team on paper on Saturday. Bona has more length and athleticism, but Canisius has the experience and home-court advantage. Yet, Flowers looks on track to return to the rotation. The Hartford transfer could prove as the X-Factor on Saturday night.
The Bonnies will slow down the Canisius offense, but the Griffs will still make plenty of threes. Get ready for a Little Three nail bitter, with the Brown and White prevailing in the final minutes.
St. Bonaventure 77, Canisius 72
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.