BROOKLYN, N.Y. – The St. Bonaventure Bonnies face their toughest test of the season on Sunday at the Barclays Center. No, they do not play a Power Five team. Nor is this a team that went to the 2022 NCAA Tournament. But this team causes a lot of problems. The Bonnies play Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels, a group that might be the best mid-major team in the country not named Gonzaga.
This game, the first of four at the Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational, tips off at 11:30 a.m. It will air on the YES Network, the television home of the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets. If you do not have the YES Network, try downloading the YES app on your television and connecting it to your cable provider.
“[The Gaels] have really good players that are athletic and have good size,” said St. Bonaventure Coach Mark Schmidt when I asked him about this Iona team. “They have outstanding guards that get downhill. They can shoot it. They have a middle game and can get the ball to the basket. They’re good defensively, especially in the full court, where they press, run, and jump. Iona turns people over too. Lots of problems that we have to figure out.”
The issues for the Bonnies start at the top with Pitino.
Pitino, a hall-of-fame coach who led Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville to the Final Four, is currently in his third season at Iona. He led the Gaels to the 2021 NCAA Tournament in his first season but then lost to Rider in the first round of the 2022 MAAC Tournament. Iona subsequently lost to Florida in the NIT.
Iona currently has a record of 5-2, with wins over Penn, Vermont, Niagara, Canisius, and most recently, St. Louis. The Gaels raced past the Billikens, the first-ranked team in A10 Talk’s power rankings, on Dec. 6, winning 84-62.
In his post-game press conference after the St. Louis victory, Pitino discussed how he purposely scheduled lightly to begin the season. His Gaels employ a full-court press, so his team needs to be well-conditioned. Hence, he spaced games out in November so his team would not get fatigued in the early going.
The Bills looked tired when facing his press in New Rochelle as Iona dominated St. Louis wire-to-wire.
Bona must be ready to battle the press for 40 minutes, or they will suffer a similar fate.
“One, you have to get the ball in bounds,” Schmidt said when I asked him how his team would try and break the Iona press. “Then you have to make good decisions. Against a press, you can’t be tentative and play on your heels. You must look up the court and make them pay for pressing. You can’t give them a free press. At the same time, you have to know when to hold them and when to fold them.”
This Iona press forces turnovers on 23.4% of their defensive possessions, good for 23rd in the country, per KenPom.
But the Gaels are talented when playing half-court defense too. They have held their opponents to an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 43.9%, which ranks 24th nationally per KenPom. eFG% adjusts for a 3-point field goal counting for one more point than a 2-point field goal.
Inside, Iona ranks third nationally in blocks percentage, according to KenPom. They have tremendous rim protectors.
The Gaels recorded 17 blocks versus St. Louis, with Osborn Shema and Berrick JeanLouis recording four apiece.
Shema, a 7-footer from Rwanda, played a season-high 36 minutes against the Billikens. He has started his last three games, scoring at least seven points in each. He has also averaged eight rebounds per game during this stretch. Pitino will likely start Shema again to match up against St. Bonaventure’s Chad Venning.
Berrick JeanLouis, a 6-foot-4 senior guard from Lehigh Acres, Florida, has started every game this season and currently averages 11.3 points per game (PPG). He scored eight versus St. Louis, but on Nov. 18 against Vermont, he poured in 23 points. He’s an efficient scorer that takes smart shots.
Yet, Iona currently has three players who average more points than JeanLouis—not counting Quinn Slazinski, who remains sidelined with a leg injury.
Daniss Jenkins, a 6-foot-3 junior from Dallas, Texas, leads the team in scoring, averaging 18.6 PPG. He can score from anywhere on the floor as he shoots 43.5% from beyond the arc.
Jenkins dropped 31 points against Niagara, and then scored 21 versus St. Louis. He found his way to Iona after playing at Odessa College in West Texas.
Walter Clayton Jr. and Nelly Junior Joseph are the other two prominent scorers for the Gaels.
Clayton Jr., a 6-foot-2 sophomore from Lake Wales, Florida, averages 16.0 PPG. He can shoot the 3-pointer well, too, as he has connected on 42.4% of his attempts from deep this season. Over his past four games, Clayton Jr. has scored 26, 13, 21, and 20 points, respectively. He also drained 6-of-6 from beyond the arc in the Nov. 26 loss to Santa Clara in Las Vegas.
Junior Joseph stands at 6-foot-9, weighs 240 pounds, and hails from Benin City, Nigeria. The junior averages 11.4 PPG and leads the team in rebounding at 6.3 per game. He also averages 1.9 blocks per game, thus serving as another rim protector inside for Pitino.
The Gaels have no weak spots, so Bonaventure will have their hands full on Sunday.
If the Bonnies want to pull off the upset, they will have to continue to play strong defensively, just as they did against Cleveland State. Bona gave up a season-low 42 points in the Nov. 7 victory over the Vikings.
“Try to play with a lot of energy,” Schmidt said when I asked him how his team could replicate the success they had on defense against Cleveland State. “We must stay disciplined, keep the ball in front of us, and do a good job on the post—contest shots. Rebound the ball. [Against Cleveland State], we rebounded well. We got 49 rebounds and out-rebounded [the Vikings] by 16. That was huge for us. We had 19 offensive rebounds. Our aggressiveness needs to be maintained. We need to have a consistent effort for every possession for 40 minutes.”
Bona’s discipline is the number one factor in playing good defense.
That starts with Venning, who must avoid foul trouble. When the 6-foot-10 redshirt sophomore plays at least 22 minutes, the Bonnies have a record of 5-0. In those games, the Bonnies did not allow their opponents to score 70 points. Venning must anchor the defense against a formidable Iona frontcourt, or else Bona will be in for a long afternoon.
On the other end, Venning averages 10.6 PPG. He has tremendous footwork and prefers to play with his back to the basket. Getting the ball into Venning inside is paramount to Bonaventure’s success offensively.
Kyrell Luc and Daryl Banks III must get it to the paint, whether it be off the dribble or via an entry pass. They must avoid turning it over as well. Turnovers have plagued the Bonnies at some points this season.
Luc, the reigning Patriot League Rookie of the Year, leads the team in assists, averaging 5.2 per game. The southpaw can score from all over the court, too, as he has a lethal mid-range jumper. He averages 15.6 PPG.
On the defensive side of the ball, Luc works tirelessly as he leads the team in forcing 2.0 steals per game. Iona does not turn the ball over much, but Luc will have to force some turnovers on Sunday.
His backcourt mate can score and play solid defense too. Banks III leads the team in scoring, averaging 16.7 PPG.
Yet, as a member of the St. Peter’s Peacocks last season, Banks III struggled against Pitino’s Gaels. He combined to score just 11 points in the two games he played against Iona.
But this is a new season, and Banks, a team captain, will do whatever it takes to win. After all, he and Luc are one of the key reasons why Bona has allowed their opponents to shoot just 23.7% from the perimeter, which ranks fourth nationally, per Kenpom.
With that said, for Bona to beat Iona, Banks III must catch some fire from deep in the Barclays Center. He has five games this year in which he has drained at least three 3-pointers. He will need to do that once again in Brooklyn.
Yann Farell, the 6-foot-6 freshman, will need to contribute offensively too. He has a beautiful shooting stroke and uses his height to shoot over defenders. He has scored in double-figures five times this season.
But that’s not all Farell has to offer.
He is St. Bonaventure’s best rebounder, as he grabs 8.1 boards per game. The battle of the boards will be critical, and Farell will need to use his athleticism to grab those 50-50 balls.
Barry Evans, a 6-foot-8 freshman, just recorded his best game as a Bonnie against Cleveland State. Evans played smart, hustled, and rebounded well. He must avoid foul trouble, limit mistakes, and crash the boards against Iona. Evans’ confidence continues to grow; Sunday’s game against Iona will prove as a massive test for him. He may emerge as the X-Factor against the Gaels.
Since Bona has to face this Iona press, the bench must also contribute. Look for Moses Flowers and Brett Rumpel to help in the backcourt, while Anquan Hill, Anouar Mellouk, and Max Amadasun will boost Bonaventure’s frontcourt. Rumpel, Flowers, and Hill can all shoot the long ball.
On Feb. 16, 1983, St. Bonaventure hosted Pitino’s Boston University Terriers at the Reilly Center. Bona prevailed, 67-61, in the only game the Bonnies have played against a Pitino-coached team.
Unfortunately for this year’s Brown and White squad, Pitino will improve his all-time record against the Bonnies to 1-1. This Iona team has too much talent and too much size, and they take good care of the basketball.
This is not to say that Bona can’t keep things close, but Iona looks the part of a single-digit seed in the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
The Bonnies keep the game within striking distance, but the Gaels use their full-court press to pull away at the end, handing Bona their fourth loss of the season.
Iona 74, St. Bonaventure 63
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.