NORMAN, Okla. – The month of March works in mysterious ways.
It appeared as if St. Bonaventure’s season was over last week.
Instead, their postseason run continues in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) on Sunday.
The St. Bonaventure Bonnies (21-9, 12-5 Conference) will face the Oklahoma Sooners (19-15, 7-11 Conference) in the Second Round of the NIT.
Tip-off from Lloyd Noble Arena is slated for 8 p.m. EST and the game will air on ESPNU.
One may look at Oklahoma’s record, and raise an eyebrow at the fact that the Sooners are just four games above .500.
But the Sooners play in the Big 12, which according to KenPom, is the best conference in the country.
Baylor and Kansas, two #1 seeds in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, reside in the Big 12. So does Texas Tech, a #3 seed. The Red Raiders are a trendy Final Four pick. #6 Texas, #9 TCU, and #11 Iowa State all made the Big Dance as well–and each of the six teams that made the NCAA Tournament from the Big 12 emerged victorious in their first round games.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma was one of the first four teams to miss out on the NCAA Tournament, thus drawing a #1 seed in the NIT. Hence why this game is in Norman, not in Olean.
“I think the Big 12 is the best conference in the country this year,” said Mark Schmidt, the St. Bonaventure coach. “[The Sooners] have good size. They got good guard play. You don’t compete in the Big 12 and be one of the first teams out of the NCAA Tournament without running good stuff, having good players, and being well coached. We have a challenge ahead of us.”
The Sooners are led by Coach Porter Moser, who arrived in Norman last spring after spending ten years at Loyola Chicago. Moser led the Ramblers to the Final Four in 2018 and to the Sweet Sixteen in 2021.
Needless to say, Moser knows all about surviving and advancing.
“Win, advance, and prepare. That’s the mentality we talked about [as a team,]” Moser told the media on Thursday. “We have to be great at the little things and at our preparation. We are always talking about having a laser-like focus. For us, to get that first win under our belt [against Missouri State,] that is always a key to momentum, especially after how we felt last Sunday night [after the Selection Show.]”
Schmidt and Moser share a mutual connection in Steve Watson, who now serves as the Athletic Director at Loyola Chicago. Before his time in the Windy City, Watson was the Athletic Director at St. Bonaventure.
Watson hired Schmidt to lead the basketball program in 2007 and then left for Loyola Chicago in 2014.
This connection has brought about a great friendship between these two head coaches, as they share a tremendous amount of respect towards each another.
“He will be a successful coach at Oklahoma for a long time,” Schmidt said when asked about Moser.
“What Mark Schmidt has done year-in and year-out at St. Bonaventure is truly phenomenal,” Poser said when I asked him about this St. Bonaventure team. “What I have seen on tape is that I see older, veteran guys who cut really hard. [Bona] runs great offense and they run it hard. They have some elite shooters. They got some elite drivers. [Kyle] Lofton is terrific–nowadays six assists is a high assist number [to average] for guards. [Osun] Osunniyi inside is such a good shot blocker.”
Moser has done his homework.
The Iron Man Five of Lofton, Osunniyi, Jaren Holmes, Dom Welch, and Jalen Adaway all average more than ten points per game (PPG). In last Tuesday’s victory at Colorado, all five players made major contributions.
Each of these guys will have to step up on Sunday at Oklahoma.
The Sooners are a very good defensive team with tons of size, which is not surprising for a Power Five school.
According to KenPom, Oklahoma has the 33rd most efficient defense in the country. They also defend the perimeter well and force turnovers at a rate that is above-average.
But offensively, this team struggles with turnovers.
The Sooners turn the ball over on 22.0% of their possessions, which ranks 345th nationally, per KenPom.
Despite these struggles, Oklahoma employs a deep rotation, often playing eight or nine players per game.
Umoja Gibson, a 6-foot-1 senior guard from Waco, Texas, leads the team in scoring, averaging 12.9 PPG. He poured in 28 points against Missouri State on Tuesday and scored 16 against Texas Tech in the Big 12 Semifinal game. The Sooners lost to the Raiders by one point, which ultimately left them out of the NCAA Tournament.
Another Sooner to watch out for is Tanner Groves, who is a forward that can score both inside and out. Standing at 6-foot-10, the Spokane, Washington native averages 11.7 PPG and shoots 38.5% from beyond the arc. The Bonnies will have to keep Groves in check if they want to emerge victorious.
Despite Groves’ size, he’s not necessarily a rim-protector. As a team, the Sooners rank 339th in the country in defensive block percentage, per KenPom. This is where Osunniyi’s 7-foot-8 wingspan and prowess on both ends of the floor can come in handy.
Since Oklahoma struggles to block shots, the Bona guards need to attack the rim. Good things happen when they do so.
With all of this in mind, this poses as a difficult road matchup for the Bonnies. The Oklahoma student body has returned to campus from their spring hiatus and will likely show up to Sunday evening’s game in droves.
Alas, the Bonnies have faced greater obstacles before.
“We are confident that we can compete with anybody,” Schmidt said. “I think our guys have shown that. Win or lose the prior game, our guys have confidence that they can play well and beat anybody.”
45 years ago this week, Elvis Presley, the undisputed king of rock-and-roll, performed two concerts on back-to-back nights at Lloyd Noble Arena. As older generations know, Presley died on August 16, 1977, which was not even five months after these two shows took place.
Presley played a huge role in my early childhood. I remember when I was around four or five years old, my late grandmother would pick me up in her old, beat-up gold Cadillac, and take me to school, get chocolate ice cream, or visit her friends. She had two tape cassettes in that hot ride. The first was Presley’s “50 Greatest Hits,” and the other one was his “30 #1 Hits.” All she listened to in her car were those tapes. My favorite Elvis song when I was that age was “A Little Less Conversation,” and it remains that way today. I always think of my grandmother whenever that song comes on and I am sure others feel similar connections to Elvis too.
So when I discovered that Presley sold out two shows at the same arena where the Bonnies play on Sunday, I could not help but think of grandmother and try to draw some parallels to the King.
Last Tuesday, against all odds, the Bonnies put together one of the most complete performances of the Mark Schmidt era. They flew out to the Rockies, faced a tough Power Five team in the altitude, and beat a talented Colorado team.
Now the Bonnies face the Oklahoma Sooners.
Joe Castiglione, the Athletic Director at Oklahoma, was the chairman of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee in 2016. Yes, Castiglione played a key role in selecting the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes over the St. Bonaventure Bonnies for the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Bonnies had the highest RPI rating of any team to not be selected to the field in history.
So let’s tie it back to Elvis’ classic song, “If I Can Dream.” (Buffalo Bills fans will recognize this song as it plays during the closing credits of the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary, “Four Falls of Buffalo.”)
“But as long as a man, has the strength to dream, then he can redeem his soul and fly.”
These lyrics embody the 2022 St. Bonaventure postseason perfectly.
The Bonnies had aspirations of an NCAA Tournament berth, but those were ripped apart in the Atlantic 10 Quarterfinals.
This team could have folded right then and there, but they had the strength to carry on.
They were invited to the NIT, where they won their first game facing difficult circumstances and now have the strength to dream of an NIT championship.
Plus, the Bonnies have a chance to strike some poetic justice towards the Oklahoma administrator who snubbed the program six years ago.
Talk about redemption.
Players and fans alike have their sights set on playing at the World’s Most Famous Arena for a chance at glory. The road to Madison Square Garden now goes through Norman, Oklahoma, and that is where the Bonnies will advance to the Quarterfinals. The Iron Man Five gets the job done, beating a Power Five opponent for the second consecutive game, thus keeping the dream alive.
St. Bonaventure 70, Oklahoma 66
Jack Milko received his B.A. in Political Science from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is now working to get his M.A. in Sports Journalism from St. Bonaventure University. A lifelong fan of the Bonnies, Jack covers the team for @A10Talk. Follow him on Twitter for more Bonnies coverage at @Jack_Milko.
Featured image courtesy of Dan Nelligan, St. Bonaventure Class of 2020, who serves as a photographer for @A10Talk.