Eleven days into the season, it’s been almost all bad for the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team.
The Bonnies are 0-3 for the first time in 15 years. They’ve been anemic offensively, averaging 59 points per game while shooting 35 percent from the field and 23 percent from 3-point range.
As of Wednesday, they’d fallen 38 spots in the KenPom rankings (from No. 127 to No. 165), the fourth-largest tumble of any team in the country since the initial poll came out for 2019-20.
Now comes their chance to truly begin changing the narrative.
In one shot, the Bonnies will play in the primetime game of a showcase event, get a crack at a Power 5 program and take on perhaps the toughest opponent they’ve seen to date — Rutgers, currently the highest-rated non-league foe (No. 69) on their schedule.
It’s a chance to not only earn their first win of the year but kickstart a season that has already threatened to go south. And it comes tonight (7:30 p.m., WPIG-FM, WHDL-AM) when Bona meets the Scarlet Knights in the inaugural James Naismith Classic at ScotiaBank Arena, home of the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors.
“Rutgers is good. It’s going to be a very difficult game for us,” coach Mark Schmidt acknowledged, “but yeah, we’re not going up there to give them a good game, we’re going up there to try to win.
“I’d rather be 3-0 going against a team like this, but we’re not, so we’re going to just try to prepare as well as we can, play as well as we can, and hopefully that will be good enough.”
Though double-digit deficits in each contest might suggest differently, the Bonnies have been close; they trailed by two possessions or fewer deep into the second half of all three contests before fizzling out in the end.
Tonight, they’ll play the finale of a triple-header that includes notable matchups in Buffalo-Harvard (2:30 p.m.) and Tennessee-No. 20 Washington (5 o’clock). Their aim is to begin limiting what they’ve described as self-inflicted wounds.
“(We’ve been) watching film and realizing that we really beat ourselves down the stretch of close games,” senior Amadi Ikpeze said. “We’re just trying to go into (today) with a sense of desperation and just knowing that it’s the little things and just consistently playing hard for 40 minutes, and that’ll put us there every game just to make plays at the end.
“Playing against a Big Ten school like Rutgers, it’s definitely an opportunity for us to get things going.”
A perennial ‘also ran’ from its latter days in the former Big East to the American Athletic Conference to its now-permanent home in the Big Ten, Rutgers appears to finally be on the rise under fourth-year coach Steve Piekell.
The Scarlet Knights lost leading scorer Eugene Omoruyi but returned almost every other contributor from a team that went 14-17 last winter and matched its conference win total (7) from the previous three seasons combined. And that’s manifested in a promising 3-0 start in which Rutgers nipped both Bryant (73-71) and Drexel (62-56) and handled Bona rival Niagara by nearly 50 (86-39) — all on its home floor.
Piekell’s team, still chosen to finish 12th of 14 teams in the Big Ten, boasts a quartet of double-digit scorers in point guard Geo Baker (14 points), long off-guards Montez Mathis (11 points) and Ron Harper Jr. (11 points) and forward Akwasi Yeboah (10 points) off the bench.
The Scarlet Knights possess the size and athleticism typical of a Big Ten team. They’ve been strong defensively, allowing only 56 points per game, which, by itself, will present a formidable challenge to the (so far) offensively deficient Bonnies.
Clearly, Bona will need its best effort of the season to pull off the upset.
“They’re a really good defensive team,” said Schmidt, whose teams are 5-16 against Power 5 opponents in his tenure, but did knock off the last Big Ten squad it played — Maryland, in November 2017. “They’ve got great length and shot blockers inside, so it makes it really difficult to get anything inside. They make you shoot the ball from the perimeter.
“Offensively, they push the ball; Baker’s a really good point guard. They present a lot of problems from a perimeter standpoint, but also because of their size, they’re strong in the post, too.”
Tonight marks the first-ever game in Canada for Bona, which has long had a recruiting connection to the country that has produced a lengthy list of high-profile players, including Andrew Nicholson, Caswell Cyrus, Rocky Llewellyn, Barry Mungar, Rob Samuels and Norman Clarke.
It’s the rekindling of an old Atlantic 10 rivalry, the teams’ first matchup since 2008, when Bona came away with one of its first big wins under Schmidt, a 64-63 overtime triumph at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
And even amid its current struggles, it’s another opportunity to showcase the growth of the program on a larger stage.
“As I’ve said a long time ago, when we first started, we weren’t invited to any of this stuff,” Schmidt noted. “It’s a credit to what our guys have done before to get in a situation where we can play in these national events.
“It’s exciting to play in an arena where the NBA champs play, it’s a dream come true for our players, but at the same time it’s basketball. No matter where you’re playing, you’ve got to go out and you’ve got to execute.”
Added Ikpeze: “It’s pretty cool, especially going to a different country. I’ve never been up to Canada, so it’ll be the first time for me. Hopefully I can just go out there, compete with my guys and get our first win tonight.”