BOULDER, Colo. – Western New Yorkers have experienced a couple of heartbreaking finishes over the past two months.
A kick-off with 13 seconds remaining. Two free throws with 1.8 ticks to go. You get the point.
But unlike the Buffalo Bills, the 2021-22 St. Bonaventure season has been revived.
The Bonnies have been invited to participate in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
The St. Bonaventure Bonnies (20-9, 12-5 Conference) will head to the Rocky Mountains to play the Colorado Buffaloes (21-11, 12-8 PAC-12) in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night.
Tip-off from Boulder, Colorado is slated for 11 p.m. EST and the game will air on ESPN2.
“We are just happy to be playing,” said Mark Schmidt, the St. Bonaventure Coach who is making his second appearance in the NIT. “There are a lot of teams that would love to be in the NIT. It’s not the NCAA, but it’s a pretty prestigious tournament and really hard to get into. So we are excited about it. We are going out to Colorado and playing a great team, a PAC-12 team, but we are excited about playing and competing. We’re going to try to play our best.”
The Bonnies are making their 17th NIT appearance and their first since 2016. Meanwhile, Colorado heads to the NIT for the 12th time. The Buffaloes last played in the NIT in 2019 and scored wins over Dayton and Norfolk State before losing to Texas in the Quarterfinals.
Both of these teams have won this tournament before.
In 1977, Greg Sanders led Bona to the championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where the Brown and White defeated Houston 94-to-91 to claim the title.
Colorado defeated Duquesne in the championship game of the 1940 NIT, which had just six teams competing at the time. It was only the third year in which the NIT was contested.
The Bonnies and the Buffaloes have played just once in their history, and rather ironically, that was just a year removed from when Colorado was the defending NIT Champions. On New Year’s Day 1942, Colorado defeated St. Bonaventure 52-to-28 at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.
More than eighty years later, these two teams meet again.
Colorado now resides in the PAC-12 conference, a member of the holier-than-thou Power Five.
“Anytime you play a Power Five team, you are going to play [against] big bodies,” Schmidt said when asked about this Colorado team. “They are long. They are big. Their [forwards] are good. Both [of those guys] can shoot threes. They have really good guard play and are well-coached. But they have big bodies. When you play a Power Five team, that’s what you expect. It’s going to be a challenge for us, but we are looking forward to it.”
Jabari Walker, a 6-foot-9 forward from Inglewood, California, leads the team in scoring and in rebounding. He averages 14.9 points per game (PPG) and corrals 9.4 boards per game. In the PAC-12 Tournament, against Oregon and #2 Arizona, Walker scored 18 and 19 points, respectively. Walker also shoots 35.6% from beyond the arc and drained five of his six attempts from deep in the PAC-12 semifinal loss to the Wildcats.
Walker has scored 10 or more points in 17 straight games.
The other forward that Schmidt alluded to is Evan Battey, a 6-foot-8 senior forward from Los Angeles. Battey averages 12.3 PPG and grabs 4.7 rebounds per game. He is a terrific shooter, as he has made 50.0% of his three-point attempts this season. In the season finale at Utah, Battey exploded for 27 points and connected on six three-pointers.
As a team, the Buffaloes shoot 37.0% from beyond the arc, which ranks 30th in the country, per KenPom.
Defending the long-ball has plagued Bona all season. The Bonnies have allowed their opponents to make 34.3% of their three-pointers, which ranks 225th nationally.
Bona shoots the ball poorly too. They have converted on just 31.8% of their attempts from deep, which ranks 270th, according to KenPom.
If the Bonnies want to escape the Rocky Mountains on a high note, they must lock down the perimeter defensively and force the Buffaloes to operate inside, where Osun Osunniyi anchors the defense.
The Bonnies rank ninth nationally in defensive block percentage, according to KenPom.
That is all because of Osunniyi.
Osunniyi, who stands at 6-foot-10 and has a 7-foot-8 wingspan, led the Atlantic 10 in blocks per game (2.9). There is a good reason as to why the Pleasantville, New Jersey native has won two consecutive Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year Awards.
Jalen Adaway and Kyle Lofton also took home all-conference awards. Adaway made the Atlantic 10 First Team while Lofton made the Atlantic 10 Third Team.
Adaway leads the team in scoring, averaging 16.0 PPG. His mid-range jumper is his strong suit, as he uses his athleticism to draw separation from his defenders. The Logansport, Indiana native had a team-high 18 points against St. Louis in the quarterfinals. He will likely have to replicate that performance at Colorado.
Then there’s Lofton, the four-year captain, who averages 12.8 PPG. What happened to Lofton late in the game on Friday was uncharacteristic of his play, and yet, it is forgivable.
Knowing how hard Lofton plays, he will head to Colorado with a chip on his shoulder, looking to lead his team past the Buffaloes and all the way to the NIT Finals at Madison Square Garden in two weeks.
But even though the Bonnies are playing with a massive chip on their shoulders, they face logistical obstacles.
First and foremost, out of the 32 teams in the NIT field, Bona–by far–has the longest trip to make:
A look at where teams are traveling to for the first round (Tuesday/Wednesday) of this year's NIT Tournament: pic.twitter.com/Q2AWg2jlVL
— SBUnfurled (@SBUnfurled) March 14, 2022
In the 2022 NIT, there are four teams from Ohio. Dayton and Toldeo are playing each other while Xavier is hosting Cleveland State. These matchups make sense as the NIT tries to make regional-friendly contests.
So, for the sake of logistics, couldn’t the NIT have drawn a more geographically favorable matchup for Bonaventure than Colorado? This is the farthest trip that the Bonnies have had to make all season, and they have to do so on such little notice.
Plus, why not give Bona an extra day to travel? The last time I checked, the NIT plays on both Tuesday and Wednesday. It is not as if the Colorado women’s team is playing at the CU Events Center on Wednesday night either. The Lady Buffaloes are headed to the NCAA Tournament, where they will face Creighton in Iowa City on Friday.
And here’s a solution to this gripe: Colorado hosts Northern Iowa, Florida heads to St. Louis, and Bona heads to New Rochelle to play Rick Pitino and the Iona Gaels. Sure, the distance between St. Louis and Florida is no bargain, but it is an easier trek than going from Western New York to Northern Colorado. And knowing the Billikens, they would love to host a Power Five opponent in Florida.
Alas, Schmidt does not care about these complaints.
“They have the same turnaround as we do,” Schmidt said. “We have played against Power Five teams. Our guys are not going to be intimidated [either.] But they are a talented team. They wouldn’t be in the NIT if they weren’t. They came in fourth in the PAC-12 and beat Arizona one time [in January]. The last time I looked, Arizona is a Top 3 team in the country. They are a talented bunch of guys and we have our work cut out for us.”
He also is not raising a fuss about the Colorado altitude either, which certainly plays a role, especially with those who are not used to being rocky mountain high.
“One day is not much to prepare for,” Schmidt said. “We are just going to go out there and play as well as we can and see what happens.”
On Friday evening, Bonaventure alumni and fans could not stomach the result of that afternoon’s quarterfinal defeat.
But now with the NIT–even with a 1,500 mile flight spanning two time zones–the Bonnies have a tremendous opportunity at redemption.
As I noted last Thursday, there is something special about this group of seniors. Perhaps we have already seen the best of them. Perhaps the best is yet to come. But this team heads to Colorado as a non-Power Five underdog, and I would be foolish to pick against them. Give me the Bonnies in a low-scoring, nail-biting affair in Boulder. The Iron Man Five survives and advances.
St. Bonaventure 63, Colorado 61
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.