Surprising St. Bonaventure nudges into NCAA Tournament talk
With all due respect to Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt regards this season as one of his most satisfying.
And Schmidt makes that acknowledgement before the Bonnies have even secured an NCAA Tournament berth as they did four years ago during Nicholson's senior season.
What's different this year is how St. Bonaventure (22-7, 14-4 Atlantic 10) has worked itself firmly into the tournament berth conversation without an eventual NBA first-round draft pick such as Nicholson.
''With Nicholson, it was expected for us, and if we didn't do well in the Atlantic 10, it would've been a disappointing year,'' said Schmidt, referring to the now Orlando Magic forward. ''Whereas this year, if we came in eighth or ninth, people would be like, `Well, yeah, that's where they were picked.' But we've exceeded expectations, so it's gratifying.''
St. Bonaventure is the third seed entering the A-10 tournament, which it will open on Friday in the quarterfinal round against an opponent not yet determined.
Despite a thin bench and a lineup featuring just two seniors, the Bonnies are coming off a year in which they set a school record for conference wins, matched another mark for regular-season victories and finished in a three-way tie for first alongside Dayton and VCU. As of Tuesday, the Bonnies' ratings-percentage index ranked 27th in the nation, and Monday, they attracted six votes in The Associated Press poll.
One more win might be enough, while reaching the championship game on Sunday would all but secure the Bonnies' seventh tournament berth and third since 2000.
This was hardly what Schmidt, the A-10's coach of the year, envisioned five months ago, never mind five weeks ago.
In October, he was more pre-occupied with having enough healthy players to hold a 5-on-5 scrimmage following injuries to Jordan Tyson and Courtney Stockard. Come late January, there were questions of whether the Bonnies had peaked following three consecutive losses to Duquesne, Dayton and VCU.
Instead, they responded by winning 10 of their final 11, including a 79-72 victory at then-No. 15 Dayton - St. Bonaventure's first road win against a ranked opponent, not including games played at neutral sites.
''No question, that was a signature win,'' Schmidt said of beating Dayton on Feb. 20. ''That was the win that gave us the ultimate confidence of (saying): `You know something, we can win every one one of these games going down the stretch.''
St. Bonaventure is led by its guard tandem of senior Marcus Posley and sophomore Jaylen Adams. Senior forward Dion Wright rounds out the Bonnies top three by averaging 16.4 points a game and a team-best 8.8 rebounds.
With only three trusted reserves, St. Bonaventure relies on a patient approach on offense that leans heavily on ball movement to set up players for open shots.
Posley leads the team in averaging 19.3 points, and scored 47 points - the most by a Division I player this season - in a 98-90 win over Saint Joseph's on March 2. Adams had a flair for dramatics by hitting a 3-point shot at the buzzer to secure a 65-62 win over St. Louis on Feb. 7. And the Bonnies have shown resilience by winning seven games by five points or fewer.
''It's still crazy to think about it, but a lot of people really didn't see this happening for us,'' Posley said. ''It's a special year for us. The team's matured a lot.''
Posley first saw a glimpse of the team's potential in a 79-66 loss at Syracuse on Nov. 17. It was a game the Bonnies actually led for much of the first 30 minutes, before running out of steam. Another bright spot was how the team rallied back to nearly overcome a 31-point deficit in an 85-79 loss to Dayton on Jan. 19.
The second-half surge, in which the Bonnies outscored the Flyers 61-40, provided Posley and his teammates confidence that they could compete against Dayton in their rematch.
Schmidt credits Posley for leading the team on and off the court. In two seasons at St. Bonaventure, the junior college transfer has already scored 1,076 points.
''He's been so much for our team. Without him, we're not here,'' Schmidt said. ''He's the leader of our team. He gives our guys confidence. And when he's playing at that level, we're a pretty good team.''