ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. – Following a dominating performance against Notre Dame, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies return home to the Reilly Center to take on the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders. Winners of three in a row, Bona hopes to continue their winning ways against a tough Middle Tennessee team.
The game tips off from Bob Lanier Court at 7 p.m. and will again air on ESPN+.
Three years ago, before the pandemic upended the entire world, St. Bonaventure embarked on a holiday trip to Murfreesboro, Tennessee to face the Blue Raiders.
With 25 seconds remaining in that game, St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt called a timeout with his team down by a point, 65-to-64. His team needed one more basket to win, so he drew up a play for sophomore Dominick Welch to take the last shot. As the clock winded down, sophomore point guard Kyle Lofton dribbled to the top of the key, drew a few defenders, and fired it over to Welch on the right wing.
Welch jab-stepped to his left, sending his defender flying, then zoomed back to his right and pulled up from just inside the 3-point arc. His 20-footer hit every part of the rim, rattling up and down, before finally dropping through the twine with 10.4 seconds remaining. Welch put the Brown and White up by a point.
Middle Tennessee had one final chance, but the Bona defense held firm. The Bonnies escaped the Volunteer State with a 66-to-65 victory.
Now the Blue Raiders pay a return trip to the Reilly Center.
Like the Bonnies, this Middle Tennessee team currently possesses a three-game win streak. The Blue Raiders defeated Hofstra, Stephen F. Austin, and Montana State in the Northern Classic outside Montreal this past weekend. They have an overall record of 5-2.
Yet, this Middle Tennessee team has far more experience than this Bonaventure team does. According to KenPom, the Blue Raiders rank 30th nationally in minutes continuity. This advanced metric “determines the percentage of a team’s minutes played by the same player from last season to this season.” Thus, the Blue Raiders return 63.9% of their minutes from a season ago.
The Bonnies, meanwhile, return zero.
“They are men,” said Schmidt when asked about this Middle Tennessee State team. “They are a veteran team that knows their system. [The Blue Raiders] are athletic and long. Coach [McDevitt] has done an excellent job with them both offensively and defensively. They get offensive rebounds, plus they get to the foul line a ton. They’re a really aggressive team too.”
Middle Tennessee ranks 65th nationally in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. The Blue Raiders have yet to allow a team to score more than 71 points against them. Plus, Middle Tennessee forces roughly 17 turnovers per game. They rank 24th in the country in turnover percentage, as their opponents turn the ball over on more than 25% of their possessions, per KenPom.
“We have to take care of the basketball,” Schmidt said when I asked him about the difficulties of playing this pesky Middle Tennesee defense. “[The Blue Raiders] employ a three-quarter court press. They’re long and get in the passing lanes, so we must be ball strong. We cannot turn the ball over 15 to 20 times against these guys because they’re very good in the open court and getting points off turnovers. We need to rebound with them; we cannot get dominated on the backboard. We also need to try and control the paint the best we can, which you cannot do if you turn the ball over.”
This defense is challenging because Middle Tennessee employs a deep rotation, thus keeping guys fresh.
No Blue Raider averages more than 30 minutes per game, yet seven players average at least 20.
Eli Lawrence, a 6-foot-5 junior from Atlanta, Georgia, plays the most minutes for the Blue Raiders. He currently averages 9.4 points per game (PPG). He scored 16 points and made four 3-pointers in Middle Tennessee’s 81-to-46 drubbing over Rice on Nov. 15. With that said, Lawrence has scored in double digits in just two other games thus far.
Joining Lawrence in the backcourt is Elias King, who also hails from Atlanta. Standing at 6-foot-8, the junior averages 10.3 PPG and shoots 42.9% from beyond the arc, which leads the team. Similar to St. Bonaventure’s Yann Farell, King uses his tall frame to shoot over his defenders. He has made at least one 3-pointer in every game thus far, the only Blue Raider to do so.
Deandre Dishman operates inside for Middle Tennessee. Although only 6-foot-6, the Lexington, Kentucky native leads the team in scoring by averaging 12.7 PPG. He began his collegiate career at Eastern Kentucky during the 2016-17 season, thus making him one of the oldest players in college basketball. Yes, this year marks his seventh year playing Division I hoops.
Jestin Porter facilitates the Blue Raider offense at the top of the key. A 6-foot-1 sophomore from Houston, Texas, Porter averages 9.6 PPG. Although he does not average double digits, he did score 19 and 16 over his past two games in Montreal. He dished out six assists during those two games too.
The Bonnies undoubtedly will have their hands full against this experienced Middle Tennessee squad. But the recipe for success remains the same: Bona needs to get the ball inside to Chad Venning.
“We always want to go inside either by the dribble or the pass,” Schmidt noted. “The team that wins the paint will be the team that wins the game. Throughout the last couple of games, we could go into [Venning], and he was able to produce. Hopefully, we can do more of that, but he needs to stay out of foul trouble. We always try to go inside out. In the last three games, [Venning] has played well, which has forced some double teams allowing us to make some shots out on the perimeter.”
During this three-game winning streak, Venning has averaged 16.7 PPG. He dominated Bowling Green, Southern Indiana, and Notre Dame. He also snagged 29 rebounds during this stretch and recorded seven blocks.
But most importantly, the 6-foot-10, 270-pound Venning draws a lot of attention inside. When teams crash in on Venning, the Bonaventure shooters, such as Kyrell Luc, Daryl Banks III, and Farell, all have bigger green lights to shoot from beyond the arc. This certainly stumped the Fighting Irish in the Gotham Classic. Notre Dame went to double Venning on numerous occasions, but the Brooklyn native found open shooters who subsequently knocked down big shots for the Brown and White.
Venning even recorded a career-high 37 minutes against Notre Dame, thanks to his consistent work ethic in the gym. He has worked tirelessly on his conditioning to play all those minutes.
“If you can’t breathe, you can’t play,” Schmidt said about his big man. “But he’s been able to get in better shape; that’s why he’s succeeding.”
Speaking of working hard, Luc, the 5-foot-11 point guard from Dorchester, Massachusetts, has already put in numerous tireless efforts.
Luc leads the team in assists, averaging 6.2 per game. He plays 37.5 minutes per game, scoring close to 16 PPG. Yet, his work on defense has been a sight to behold.
“He’s quick, gets underneath people, and can create some trouble for the opposing point guard,” Schmidt said of Luc. “He can push the ball and pressure the ball. He has done a nice job so far but still has a long way to go.”
These Bonnies still have a long way to go due to their youth and inexperience. But they have made significant progress from their second game of the season, an overtime loss at Canisius on Nov. 12.
A big reason for that has been the emergence of Venning, but Bona has also taken better shots, limited turnovers, and controlled the glass.
Over their past three games, the Bonnies have made 29 3-pointers. For the entire season, Bona has made 37.3% of their 3-point attempts, good for 61st nationally per KenPom.
Yet, if Bona wants to continue to have success from beyond the arc, they need to get inside. This Middle Tennesee defense has length, and if Bona fails to exploit the interior, those long Blue Raider guards will have an easier time closing out on the perimeter.
Banks will need to have success driving to the paint too. When he does so, things open up for the Bona offense. Banks, who averages 17.3 PPG, has demonstrated the ability to score from all three levels.
Of course, another key to this game will be winning the battle of the glass.
Farell currently leads the team in averaging 8.0 rebounds per game. He will likely need to step up on the glass again against the Blue Raiders.
“He’s done a really good job rebounding,” Schmidt said of Farell. “He’s done a really good job of going and getting the ball. We need to do a better job blocking out, but as a freshman, who’s playing bigger guys, he’s done a really good job of rebounding the ball.”
This showdown between two mid-major powers will come down to 3-point shooting and perimeter defense.
The Bonnies have shot the ball well as of late, especially on their home floor. They have also defended the three-ball well, limiting their opponents to shooting just 26.7% from beyond the arc, which ranks 27th nationally, according to KenPom.
On the flip side, Middle Tennessee only has one shooter–King–who shoots better than a 34% clip. The Blue Raiders have made only 31.5% of their 3-point attempts this season, good for 246th nationally, per KenPom.
Although Middle Tennessee has a stout defensive front with a deep rotation, the Blue Raiders have sometimes struggled to defend the perimeter. Their opponents have made 33.6% of their attempts from beyond the arc, which ranks right in the middle of all Division I teams. Essentially, this good defensive team is only average at defending the three.
Since the Bonnies have the home-court advantage, I like the Brown and White to once again find their shooting stroke in the comfortable confines of the Reilly Center. This game will feature numerous lead changes and will likely come down to the final minutes. Similar to 2019, the Bonnies make the last big shot of the game, extending their winning streak to four in a row.
St. Bonaventure 67, Middle Tennessee 64
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.