ST. LOUIS – We have reached the midway point of the season. Two months ago, on the night of the season opener, nobody, not even Bona coach Mark Schmidt, knew how this team would look. Fast forward to Saturday, and the Bonnies arrive in St. Louis with a 2-0 record in the Atlantic 10, heading into a big matchup against the Billikens.
This game tips off at 4 p.m. EST and will air on ESPN+.
At Atlantic 10 Media Day in October, pundits and coaches selected the Bills to finish second in the conference’s preseason poll.
But over the last month, St. Louis has not come close to resembling the second-best team in the conference.
On Dec. 6, the Billikens lost at Iona by 22.
Two weeks later, St. Louis suffered an epic second-half collapse and lost to Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on their home floor, 69-67.
Since that embarrassing loss to SIUE on Dec. 21, St. Louis struggled at St. Joseph’s, but they prevailed on Hawk Hill 83-78. The Billikens then trekked to Western Massachusetts on Jan. 4 and lost to UMass, 90-81.
Now the defensive-minded Bonnies come to town to take on the Billikens, who, despite their recent struggles, lead the conference in scoring, averaging 77.1 points per game (PPG).
And even though St. Louis is trending in the wrong direction, Schmidt and his Bonnies know that Saturday’s game is a formidable test.
Bona has yet to win a true road game this season.
“We have to play better. That’s the bottom line,” Schmidt said when discussing his team’s struggles away from the Reilly Center. “You are down ten to nothing before the game starts [when playing on the road]. We can’t have lulls, and we must defend better. We must play our’ A-game,’ or we will lose.”
The Bonnies, who will enter this game as the underdog, will need their ‘A-game’ in St. Louis to have a chance to beat the Billikens, who have a record of 9-6.
After all, St. Louis has arguably the best point guard in the country, Yuri Collins, facilitating their offense.
“He makes them go. He’s hard to guard,” Schmidt said of Collins. “He always has a ball screen, and we have not played good ball-screen defense. He does a great job of getting his guys shots in the open court. He has a tremendous IQ. He’s just a hard guard. We must do a good job with our ball screen defense and transition defense. We must corral him. He’s the motor. He’s the reason why they’re so good. They are not nearly as effective when he’s not in the game because he’s such a special player.”
Collins, a St. Louis native, stands 6 feet tall and leads the nation in assists, averaging 10.6 per game. Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell ranks second in this department with 8.5 per game.
Yes, Collins is that good at passing the ball. He does a beautiful job distributing in transition and when playing five-on-five. He has already recorded 156 assists this season, which already ranks sixth all-time in St. Louis history. The Billikens still have 16 games to play.
Collins can score too.
He averages 12.3 PPG but has not shot it well from the perimeter this season. He’s made just 24.3% of his 3-point attempts.
Conversely, Gibson Jimerson, the 6-foot-5 guard from Richmond, Virginia, leads the team in scoring at 12.9 PPG and is one of the premier shooters in the conference.
That said, Jimerson has not been as automatic this year as in prior seasons. Last season, the sophomore shot 42% from 3-point range. This year, that number has dwindled to 34.9%.
He’s struggled to find his shot over the past month, as he is 7-of-31 (22.5%) from beyond the arc since the loss at Iona. But Jimerson loves playing the Bonnies.
Every Bona fan remembers the 2022 Atlantic 10 Quarterfinal matchup against St. Louis—the last time these two teams played. Kyle Lofton’s missed free throws immediately come to mind, but Jimerson knocked down six 3-pointers and scored a game-high 20 points in that game. He hit the go-ahead jumper with 17.5 seconds too.
Between Collins and Jimerson, Bona’s perimeter defense will be tested.
So will their interior defense, as Francis Okoro, the Billiken big man, ranks second in the league in rebounding. The 6-foot-9 Okoro averages 8.8 boards per game.
“It’s a challenge,” Schmidt said when discussing this year’s Billiken team. “Collins is very good, and he makes them go, but so is the big guy [Okoro] inside. They have good wings. Jimerson is one of the better 3-point shooters in the league. They surround [Collins] with good pieces. Coach [Travis] Ford puts them in the right spots. They’re well-coached and have solid players. That’s why St. Louis is one of the better teams and picked high in our league.”
Collins, Jimerson, and Okoro all return from a season ago, but St. Louis added some vital pieces this year.
Javonte Perkins, who tore his ACL in October 2021, returned to the Billikens to exercise his final year of eligibility. One of the better players in the conference, Perkins, who stands at 6-foot-6, averages 10.1 PPG and shoots 37.9% from deep on his home floor. But Perkins has looked like a shell of himself during SLU’s first two Atlantic 10 games. The St. Louis native scored a combined seven points at St. Joseph’s and at UMass.
Ford also added Javon Pickett to his roster this season. Pickett, who transferred to St. Louis from Missouri, is a 6-foot-5 guard who averages 11.4 PPG and six rebounds per game. He most recently dropped 20 points on the Minutemen.
But St. Louis suffered a mighty blow this past Wednesday in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Not having Thatch out there weakens St. Louis’ perimeter defense, which benefits the Bonnies.
After all, Bona has struggled offensively at numerous points this season as they have the 182nd-ranked offense per KenPom.
Yet, Daryl Banks III, the 6-foot-3 junior captain from New Jersey, has averaged 29 PPG in Atlantic 10 play. He combined to make a dozen 3-pointers against UMass and George Mason as he now averages 17.4 PPG, which ranks fourth in the conference.
But Banks III has struggled to knock down shots on the road. The Bonnies have played six games away from the Reilly Center this season. Banks III shot just 25.6% from beyond the arc in those games.
On the other hand, Yann Farell, who knocked down a clutch jumper with 1:43 to play against George Mason, has drained 45.2% of his 3-point attempts on the road. The 6-foot-6 freshman from Gabon averages 9.7 PPG and grabs 7.5 boards per game, which leads the team. Farell has a great jumper, and with Thatch Jr.’s absence, it will be interesting to see if Farell can get more space and knock down open looks.
As we all know, teams live and die by the three-point shot. But the game comes down to much more than that.
First and foremost, Bona will have to stop this high-octane St. Louis offense.
Kyrell Luc, Banks III, and Farell have all played well defensively as of late.
But so has Barry Evans, the 6-foot-8 freshman from Baltimore.
After going through a tough stretch in December, Evans played terrific against George Mason. He was active defensively, knew his spots on the floor, and grabbed six rebounds.
With all of this in mind, the two primary keys to slowing down SLU will be to stay out of foul trouble and limit turnovers.
The Billikens love to get out in transition, where Collins and Jimerson are lethal.
Nonetheless, St. Louis does a terrible job of causing turnovers. The Billikens force a giveaway on just 14.2% of their defensive possessions. That mark ranks 356th nationally, per KenPom. Moreover, St. Louis ranks 358th in defensive steals percentage, according to KenPom.
The Bonnies cannot make silly mistakes when they have the ball. Nor can they take ill-advised shots. That’s the recipe for slowing down the Billikens.
If Bona can slow down the St. Louis fastbreak, they have a good chance of pulling off the upset.
Easier said than done, however.
“We are nowhere near where we need to be. We make inexperienced plays. We are still learning what it takes to be successful, especially on the road,” Schmidt remarked when I asked him what he had learned about his team at the halfway mark. “When we bring energy, physical, and mental toughness, that’s when we win. When we don’t, we’re not going to win.”
Last season, the Bonnies and the Billikens played a unique home-and-home series over Valentine’s Day weekend thanks to COVID-19 cancellations and postponements.
At that point, St. Bonaventure, the 2021-22 conference preseason favorite, entered that stretch as the more desperate team. Bona had lost three of their last five games before winning at St. Louis 68-61 on Feb. 11 and then again on Feb. 14, 83-79, in the Reilly Center.
If we fast forward to this season, the Billikens stumble into Saturday’s game desperate for a victory. Losers of four of their last six, St. Louis, who entered this season with Sweet 16 aspirations, needs a win more than anyone else in the conference.
The Billikens have not played in front of their home crowd at the Chaifetz Center since their meltdown against SIUE.
They need a get-right game.
Unfortunately, I see the Billikens having just that as they take care of business on Saturday afternoon against the Bonnies.
Two weeks ago, when the Bonnies had lost four in a row and looked in complete disarray, fans looked ahead to this game with big eyes, thinking to themselves, “oh boy, I hope they do not get embarrassed.” Well, I do not believe that will happen either.
Saturday’s game at Chaifetz will be close, but the home team pulls away late to win by a couple of possessions. The Bonnies lose to St. Louis, but Schmidt’s club will earn a lot of respect from those around the league thanks to a gritty road performance.
St. Louis, 71, St. Bonaventure 64
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.