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Preview: It’s Bona against VCU for the Atlantic 10 Championship on Sunday

On Sunday, in Dayton, Ohio, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies (15-4, 11-4 Conf.) will take on the Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) Rams (19-6, 10-4 Conf.) in the Atlantic 10 Championship game.

The game tips-off at 1 pm on CBS.

This marks the second consecutive appearance for St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 Championship game; the Bonnies lost to the St. Louis Billikens in the 2019 title game.

Two years ago, the Bonnies had to win the title to get into the NCAA Tournament. This time around, the stakes are different. A Bona win over VCU would help improve St. Bonaventure’s seed in the Big Dance. A loss, meanwhile, will still keep them in the field.

The same goes for VCU. A Ram win will improve their seed line. A VCU loss, however, may drop the Rams into the First Four.

So let’s take a look into the VCU Rams, who St. Bonaventure will play for the third time this season.

Scouting the VCU Rams

Like St. Bonaventure, VCU has had a terrific season. The Rams won 19 of their 25 games. They scored some big wins over Utah State, Memphis, St. Bonaventure, and St. Louis. And, they have Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, the 2020-21 Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, leading the way. VCU has some depth too. They will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of who they play.

Season Split

In the first meeting between Bona and VCU, on January 20 at the Reilly Center, the Bonnies shot 42.6% from the field and committed 15 turnovers. This game was truly a tale of two halves as VCU led by 15 at the break. In the second half, the Bonnies outscored VCU 45-14 as they went on to win 70-54. The Bona defense, not “Havoc,” shut things down in the closing 20 minutes.

Three weeks later in Richmond, these two teams squared off again. VCU prevailed 67-64 as the Rams grabbed 19 offensive rebounds. VCU’s dominance on the glass proved to be the difference. The Bonnies committed 15 turnovers yet again and shot 44% from the field, far better than VCU, who shot 36%.

When looking back on these two games, the Bonnies will need to do a better job rebounding and they must take better care of the basketball. Bona cannot allow VCU to get second chances nor can they afford to give the ball up more than 15 times, or else VCU will capitalize on those mistakes.

“Havoc!”

For the last decade-plus, the VCU Rams have prided themselves on their “Havoc” defense, which ranks as the tenth most efficient defense in the country, according to KenPom.

VCU employs full-court pressure for the entire game, using their athleticism to force turnovers in bunches. This season, teams that have played VCU have committed a turnover almost 25% of the time. A lot of those turnovers come off of steals: the Rams force a steal on 13.3% of their opponents’ possessions. That mark ranks second in the country, according to KenPom.

The Rams have allowed just 64.8 points per game (PPG), which ranks third in the conference behind St. Bonaventure and Davidson. For what it’s worth, the Bonnies allow just 60.1 PPG, which ranks first in the Atlantic 10 and fourth (!!!) nationally.

Congratulations Bones!

Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, the 6’3″ guard from Wilmington, DE, has had one terrific season. The Sophomore sensation averages 19.4 PPG and shoots 37.2% from downtown. Rightfully so, Bones Hyland is the 2020-21 Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. Rest assured that we will see Bones at the next level. He has NBA lottery-pick potential.

Richmond, VA – Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, the 2020-21 Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, goes up for a shot in a February 17, 2021 game against Richmond. The Rams prevailed against the Spiders by a score of 68-56. Photo courtesy of @A10Talk.

Back on February 20, in a loss to George Mason, Hyland sprained his foot, which forced him to miss the two subsequent games against St. Louis and at Davidson.

This is not the first time Bones Hyland has faced a setback, however. As my colleague, Jason Boleman wrote Friday, Bones lost his grandmother and his cousin in a house fire on March 25, 2018. He now has a tattoo to serve as a remembrance for them. Barely three years later, Bones Hyland has emerged as one of the best players in the country.

In the two games against the Bonnies this year, Hyland demonstrated that he is a top-tier player, scoring 16 and 22, respectively.

In the second game between these two teams, Bones scored nine of his 22 points from the free-throw line. He shot the ball poorly in that game, but Bona gave up too many offensive rebounds and committed too many fouls. Hence why Hyland made a trip to the charity stripe ten times.

If he does not hurt you with his shot, he can hurt you from the line. Bones has made 85.6% of his free-throw attempts this season.

He’s the best player in the conference and a future NBA Star. The Bonnies will have their hands full with him on Sunday.

Tremendous Depth

Mike Rhoades, VCU’s Head Coach, has one of the deepest teams in the Atlantic 10.

Nine VCU Rams average 16 minutes or more. Six Rams score at least 6.0 PPG. To employ “Havoc,” the Rams need to rotate guys in and out to keep everyone fresh.

Two VCU Rams to watch out for are Vince Williams and Levi Stockard III.

Williams, the 6’6″ Junior, averages 10.6 PPG. He scored 11 points in each game against the Bonnies. Similar to Hyland, Williams suffered a late-season injury too. Instead of spraining his foot, Williams sprained his ankle. Thankfully, the Junior did not have to miss a game. But he only played 17 minutes in the Quarterfinal victory over Dayton. He failed to score against the Flyers. Williams got back on the scoreboard in the Semifinals versus Davidson, however. He scored eight points and shot two of seven from the floor.

Levi Stockard III, the big physical Senior from St. Louis, has scored eight points in each game against Bona. He averages 6.6 PPG and shoots 55.4% from the field. He does not shoot often, but when he does, there is a good chance it goes in. He’s a smart, tough, and efficient player. Stockard combined to score ten points in the wins over Dayton and Davidson last week.

Another player to watch out for is Adrian “Ace” Baldwin Jr. He has started every game so far this season and he averages 4.4 assists per game. The Freshman from Baltimore did not score at the Reilly Center the first time these two teams met. But in the rematch, Ace stepped it up; he scored seven and recorded four assists.

Watch out for Hason Ward too. He will likely matchup against Bona’s Osun Osunniyi. Ward leads the team in rebounds, averaging 5.2 boards per game.

Keep an eye on Jamir Watkins and KeShawn Curry as well, both of whom see at least 18 minutes per game coming off the bench. These two combine to average 13.2 PPG.

How Do The Bonnies Cut Down the Nets in Dayton?

For the Bonnies to beat the VCU Rams for the second time this season, Bona will have to (1) continue to go through Osun, (2) get Adaway involved, (3) limit turnovers, and (4) compete on the boards.

Osun!

St. Bonaventure Forward Osun Osunniyi dominated both Duquesne and St. Louis last weekend.

Against Duquesne, the offense went through Osunniyi in the post. When the ball goes through him in the paint, the offense shines. His stat line against the Dukes: 18 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks, and he shot 69% from the floor. Just an amazing performance for the 6’10” Junior from South Jersey.

The next day, versus St. Louis, Osunniyi had another memorable performance.

Richmond, VA – St. Bonaventure’s Osun Osunniyi, the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year, blocks a shot attempt from Martin Linssen in the 2021 Atlantic 10 Semifinal win over St. Louis. Photo courtesy of St. Bonaventure Athletics and GoBonnies.com.

Although he did not record a double-double, Osunniyi finished the game with eight blocks! He had seven of those in the first half. Osun’s block party reminded me of something the late John Thompson told Patrick Ewing before the 1982 National Championship game against North Carolina, “go up after it and don’t worry about goaltending. Establish the fact that you’re going up. A kid is aware of the fact that you blocked his shot, whether it’s goaltending or not.”

Like the Tar Heels 39 years ago, the Billikens quickly became aware of Osunniyi’s presence around the rim. By the end of the first half, the Bills looked timid. They could not get any good looks inside. ‘Shoon seemed to swat everything to the moon.

On Sunday against VCU, Osunniyi needs to keep playing aggressively on both sides of the ball.  Of course, he needs to stay out of foul trouble, which he has done well as of late. If he can do that, the sky is the limit for the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year. After all, ‘Shoon is averaging close to a double-double: 10.3 PPG and 9.5 rebounds per game.

All Aboard Flight 33

Back on February 11, in the press conference leading up to the second game against VCU, I asked St. Bonaventure Head Coach Mark Schmidt to talk about Jalen Adaway. Schmidt, the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year, praised the Junior and said:

“He is an undersized four-man, VCU has got some big guys, but he plays much bigger than he is. He is the most athletic guy we’ve got on our team. He’s playing with a lot more confidence offensively, shooting the ball a little bit better. He’s great on our baseline. But sitting out last year, it’s always a challenge to come back and be competitive and I think that he is finding his game as the season goes along. As he plays better, we’re gonna be a better team. He’s a mismatch problem for other teams.”

All of this remains true a month later. Jalen Adaway has been a problem for opposing teams down the stretch. He has given VCU fits this season too. In his two games against the Rams this year, Adaway has averaged 16.0 PPG.

Richmond, VA – St. Bonaventure Junior guard Jalen Adaway, who is nicknamed “Flight 33” because of the number he dons, goes up for a dunk in the Semifinal win over St. Louis on March 6, 2021. Photo courtesy of St. Bonaventure Athletics and GoBonnies.com.

He scored 12 against Duquesne in the Quarterfinals and then he had 17 last Saturday in the win over St. Louis.

In fact, since the beginning of February, Adaway has scored in double figures in every game except for one.

When Adaway is on, the Bonnies are borderline unstoppable. He has played well against the Rams already this season, so let’s see if he can keep it rolling on Sunday. The Bonnies will need some production from Flight 33 to cut down the nets.

Limit Turnovers

St. Bonaventure has done a good job in taking care of the ball this season. The Bonnies have a turnover margin of +1.79, which ranks fourth in the conference.

Of course, having Point Guard Kyle Lofton helps.

Lofton, who made the All-Conference First Team, dishes out 5.5 assists per game and commits just 2.6 turnovers per contest. Thus, his assist to turnover ratio is 2.11.

Lofton actually leads the country in percentage of minutes played, according to KenPom. So for him to average just 2.6 turnovers is quite impressive.

To beat VCU, Bona will have to take good care of the basketball. The “Havoc” press forces turnovers in bunches, which quickly turns into Ram points.

Compete on the Boards

The last time these two teams played, VCU dominated the glass. The Rams grabbed 19 rebounds and prevailed by three. Coach Schmidt cited this as the key difference in the game.

Currently, the Bonnies rank fourth in the conference in rebounding, averaging close to 37 per game. Meanwhile, VCU averages 34.4 boards per game, which ranks eighth in the Atlantic 10.

Furthermore, St. Bonaventure ranks second in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom. The Bonnies do a good job of following their shots and crashing the glass when they have the ball. The same cannot be said about VCU, however. The Rams have allowed its opponents to grab an offensive rebound 31.6% of the time, which ranks dead last in the conference. For context, the Division I average is 27.9%, according to KenPom.

For the Bonnies to win, they do not necessarily have to win the battle of the boards, they just have to compete. VCU is not a great rebounding team, so Bona should focus on the fundamentals and boxing out. Bona cannot let VCU dominate the glass again; if they do, it would be inexcusable.

Prediction

Before making my pick, here is an update on The Bubble from @SBUnfurled:

If Bona wins Sunday, it would mark the first time that the St. Bonaventure Bonnies win both the Regular Season title and the Conference Tournament in the same season. I truly believe that if the Bonnies win, the Brown and White could see themselves as high as a 7-seed when the Bracket is revealed on Sunday evening.

With this in mind, I feel confident in the Bonnies. Bona rolled over Duquesne and St. Louis last week and they have had a week off to rest and recuperate.

Similar to the two previous meetings, I envision another slugfest between the top two teams in the “mighty” Atlantic 10 Conference. I think Osun Osunniyi leads the Bonnies to the title and he wins Atlantic 10 Tournament MVP honors.

St. Bonaventure 66, VCU 62