NEW YORK – After a wild month of March, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies (23-9, 12-5 Conference) will meet the Xavier Musketeers (21-13, 8-11 Conference) in the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Three weeks ago, Xavier was firmly on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament. The Musketeers felt that if they could make a run in the Big East tournament, then they could sneak into the Big Dance.
In the first round of the Big East Tournament, Xavier held a six point lead over Butler with 54 seconds to go in regulation. Some fans were already looking ahead to their next matchup against Providence in the quarterfinals.
But the Musketeers blew that lead and subsequently lost to the Bulldogs in overtime.
Just like that, their chances at making the NCAA Tournament vanished.
Those final 54 seconds serve as a perfect metaphor for the final month of Xavier’s season.
On Friday, Feb. 11, Xavier scored a big win over #24 UConn. At the time, the Musketeers were ranked #25 in the Associated Press Poll.
Things were looking good in Cincinnati.
But then their season derailed, just as their first round game in the Big East Tournament did.
Xavier finished the regular season losing five of their last six, with the lone win coming against Georgetown, who failed to win a single game in Big East play.
The late season collapse forced Xavier Athletic Director Greg Christopher to fire head coach Travis Steele on March 16, just a day after his team defeated Cleveland State in the first round of the NIT.
Needless to say, the Musketeers have had quite a month but the chaos for Xavier does not stop there.
In the second round of the NIT, against Florida, Paul Scruggs, the starting point guard for Xavier, tore his ACL in his knee, thus ending his season. Scruggs is the second leading scorer on this team as he averages 11.7 points per game (PPG). He also leads the team in assists.
Somehow, this team still managed to make it to New York City.
“They are really impressive,” said Mark Schmidt, the St. Bonaventure coach, when asked about Xavier. “It tells you how well the coaching staff has done, what type of kids they have, and they rallied. For them to lose their coach after the first game, and then their starting point guard goes down [in the second game] against Florida and they continue to win, that shows that they are a tight team with quality young men. It’s really impressive.”
Xavier is looking to redeem their season in the Big Apple.
“Getting back to New York was a goal of ours at the outset of this whole deal,” said Jonas Hayes, who is Xavier’s interim head coach. “This is an opportunity for us to get a sour, sour, sour taste out of our mouths.”
Indeed, the Musketeers find themselves at the same venue that shattered their NCAA Tournament hopes.
A big reason for as to why Xavier is still playing is because of the play of Jack Nunge, a 7-foot junior forward from Newburgh, Indiana.
Nunge, who transferred to Xavier from Iowa before this season, leads the team in scoring, averaging 13.3 PPG. He also converts on 36.6% of his attempts from beyond the arc.
“He’s both an inside and outside [player],” Schmidt said when asked about Nunge. “Sometimes, he’s more effective on the perimeter. He’s a screen and pop guy. It’s really hard to guard the five-man who is screening and popping. He might be the best shooter on the team. If you switch it, then he will take you inside. He’s long and athletic.”
If you check out the latest SBUnfurled and Friends podcast, the guys compare Nunge to Clemson’s PJ Hall. If Bonaventure fans recall, in Charleston, Hall torched the Bonnies from deep and scored 22 points overall. Bona may have prevailed against the Tigers, but Hall gave the Bonnies all sorts of issues.
It goes without saying that the Bonnies will need to keep Nunge in check on Tuesday at the Garden.
With that said, the Musketeers do not rely solely on Nunge. Zach Freemantle and Colby Jones are key contributors too.
Freemantle, who stands at 6-foot-9, had 16 points in last Wednesday’s victory against Vanderbilt. Jones chipped in with 15 of his own.
Even though the Musketeers are short-handed without Scruggs, they still pack a punch.
Speaking of short-handed, the Bonnies will get one of their rotational players back in the lineup after a two-game hiatus.
Quadry Adams, who did not make the trip to Oklahoma and Virginia because of a concussion sustained in practice, has been cleared to return.
Although he is not an offensive threat, Adams provides a spark off the bench and is terrific defensively. He certainly will help in slowing down the Xavier backcourt when his number is called.
Like Adams, most Bonnie fans could not make the trip out west either.
Instead, they are now headed to the Big Apple in droves:
This afternoon, #Bonnies students received an email from the administration indicating that the university has 8 buses lined up for the NIT. More than 400 students will depart from campus around 9 a.m. Tues. and they will arrive in NYC around 3 p.m.—just in time for the pre-game.
— Jack Milko (@jack_milko) March 25, 2022
The “Iron Man Five” of Kyle Lofton, Jaren Holmes, Dom Welch, Jalen Adaway, and Osun Osunniyi will have one more opportunity to play in front of their beloved fan base.
Perhaps Madison Square Garden should be renamed “Reilly Square Garden” for the evening.
Even though the Bonnies will have the crowd behind them, the Musketeers are not an easy matchup for the Iron Man Five.
Because Nunge can shoot it well from the outside, he will likely try to draw Osunniyi away from the rim. When ‘Shoon is not there to guard the basket, teams usually exploit the Bonnies inside.
Although Nunge can light it up from downtown, Xavier, as a team, has made just 32.0% of their three-point attempts this season, which ranks 261st nationally per KenPom. The Bonnies play well against teams that struggle shooting the long ball.
The Bonnies also have an advantage in the back court. With Scruggs out, Lofton should be able to attack the paint with some success.
As I have said throughout this season, the Bonnies are at their best when getting downhill. When they attack the paint, they win games. Plain and simple.
Plus, when Bona gets inside, it opens up the perimeter for Welch and Holmes, who have shot the ball well as of late.
Sure, the Bonnies drained only three long-balls against Virginia, but the Cavaliers employ one of the best defenses in the country. Bona had to find other ways to get the job done, and they did.
With all of this in mind, ultimately, each of Lofton, Holmes, Welch, Adaway, and Osunniyi will have to step up in their own way against Xavier just as each of them did at Virginia.
Two weeks ago, Bonaventure fans all over the Eastern Seaboard were forced to stay up late to watch their beloved Bonnies take on the Colorado Buffaloes at 11 p.m. EST.
It was well worth losing sleep over it.
As we all know by now, the Bonnies beat the Buffaloes, then the Sooners of Oklahoma, and then squeaked by Virginia.
It has been an unbelievable ride.
Now the Bonnies take on a former Atlantic 10 foe in Xavier. They will be playing at “Reilly Square Garden,” where chants of “Let’s Go Bona’s” will echo throughout the World’s Most Famous Arena all night long.
As for Xavier, they have played three home games in the NIT. The Musketeers have certainly battled some adversity over the past couple of weeks.
But did they have to travel over 6,000 miles? And beat three consecutive Power Five opponents? On short notice?
And now the Musketeers will be tested in a pro-Bonaventure environment. With their floor general sidelined, I do not see Xavier passing this test.
I like the Bonnies to advance to the NIT Championship on Thursday against either Texas A&M or Washington State. Watch out for Jalen Adaway to light up the Garden, he’s due for a big game in the NIT.
St. Bonaventure 73, Xavier 68
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 St. Bonaventure Athletics.