It was the elephant in the room that not only largely went ignored, but almost didn’t have to be acknowledged in the first place.
After originating there in a pair of season-opening losses, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team’s offensive struggles followed it home in Tuesday’s matchup with Mercer. In that one, the Bonnies shot just 35 percent from the field, including 4-of-16 from 3-point range, while failing to crack 60 points for the fourth time in six games this season.
Only this time, it didn’t matter.
With shot-blocking center Osun Osunniyi back in the lineup, the addition of hard-nosed Jaren English and a commitment to not being outworked the way they were against Canisius, the Bonnies did enough to win anyway.
Bona checked each of the boxes in coach Mark Schmidt’s oft-mentioned “trifecta” — they rebounded (holding a 36-33 advantage), defended (limiting the Bears to just 51 points) and took care of the ball (committing only 11 turnovers). They were physically tough, and mentally so when it mattered most.
They resembled the team they were in conference play last year, the one that was among the most stifling in the Atlantic 10 defensively.
If that’s the identity they’re going to take on again in 2019-20, the Bonnies (2-4) might just be able to survive while they continue to find their way offensively. That’s the mindset they’ll take into their next task: the two-day Boca Raton Beach Classic, which begins with tomorrow’s first round matchup against San Diego (9 o’clock, WPIG-FM, WHDL-AM, ESPN+-live stream) inside Florida Atlantic’s FAU Arena.
“A lot of times when you have a young team, it’s all about scoring points,” Schmidt said after his team’s 56-51 triumph over the Bears. “When you’re struggling offensively, it affects your defense. This was a good win where it shows the guys — we (might not) play very well offensively, but if we defend and rebound, we can win games. So it’s a great teaching point, and it’s great to have a teaching point when you win.”
Bona has to display at least a modicum of improvement offensively going forward. As it stands, it’s behind even last year’s pace, which ranked in the bottom third of the league and was, at times, a detriment, even as it won nine of 11 games leading up to the A-10 Tournament championship game.
Aside from their scorching-hot, outlier of a first half against Rutgers (43 points), the Bonnies have eclipsed 35 points in a half only once — in the second stanza against the Scarlet Knights (37) — while being limited to 30 or fewer on eight of 12 occasions. After Tuesday’s showing, it now ranks last in the league in each of the three primary offensive categories: points per game (61.7), field goal percentage (.380) and 3-point field goal percentage (.278).
In the meantime, with one of the best defensive players in the league (Osunniyi) patrolling the paint again, and an added physical defender (English) up top, Bona might once again be able to hang its hat on defense … at least for a while.
That’s what it did last winter; Bona was 16-0 in games it surrendered 60 points or fewer until falling to Saint Louis, 55-53, in the A-10 title contest.
And that’s what it’ll try to do in Boca Raton.
If the KenPom rankings are an accurate representation, tomorrow’s contest pits a pair of evenly matched teams, as Bona enters at No. 155 and the Toreros No. 163.
San Diego posted its second-straight 20-win season under coach Sam Scholl, who took over at the end of the 2016-17 campaign, and earned an NIT berth for the first time in school history last year.
And though it’s off to a 3-5 start this season, that record is a bit misleading.
The Toreros have losses to Colorado (71-53) and Washington (88-69), which were both Top 25 teams at game time, and rival San Diego State — all three of which are ranked in the top 66 of the KenPom projection. They’re coming off a come-from-behind 79-69 home win over a tough Hofstra team, one Bona will meet in the Reilly Center next Saturday.
An average team offensively, San Diego currently has a pair of double-digit scorers in sophomore guard Joey Calcaterra (15 points) and junior guard Braun Hartfield (11 points). A third double-digit guy, big man Yauhen Massalski, the team’s lone returning starter and leading rebounder from last year, has been sidelined since opening night with a foot injury, and is not expected to play.
The last of four contests tomorrow at FAU Arena — and, in that way, the tournament’s primetime first-round contest — Bona-San Diego is part of the Hall of Fame Bracket, along with Florida Atlantic-Illinois-Chicago. The Bonnies will meet either FAU (No. 199 KenPom) or the Flames (No. 248) on Monday, with the consolation game set for 5 p.m. and the championship contest at 8 p.m.
The Boca Raton Beach Classic marks the third time in the last seven years that Bona will play in an in-season tournament in Florida. It reached the championship games of the Gulf Coast Showcase (in 2013) and Emerald Coast Classic (in 2017, after beating Maryland), but lost — to Louisiana Tech and TCU, respectively — in both instances.
“It was good to get one at home finally,” Osunniyi said after Tuesday’s win. “Now we can take this and learn from it, fix some mistakes. Like Coach said, we still have a lot to do with our offense, but now we can take this victory and use it as momentum going into Florida.”