ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — Outside the locker room doors, anticipation has been rising.
“Just over 72 hours from tipping off our Centennial Season,” the official St. Bonaventure Twitter account posted on Saturday.
“It’s finally here — GAME WEEK,” read a tweet from Monday morning.
“T-minus 24 hours …” announced a post from later that same night.
Yes, program officials and fans are undoubtedly ready for another year of Bona men’s basketball, which tips off tonight (7:30 p.m., WPIG-FM, WHDL-AM, ESPN+-live stream) against Mid-American Conference foe Ohio inside the Reilly Center.
The Bonnies, to be sure, are excited for their first real action since falling to Saint Louis, 53-51, in last year’s Atlantic 10 Tournament championship game. The question is — with their youngest team in coach Mark Schmidt’s 13 seasons — are they ready?
“We’re as ready as we can be,” said Schmidt, Bona’s all-time winningest coach, who brings a record of 210-168 into the new year. “You always have first game jitters just because as a coach, you’re always thinking, ‘have we covered everything?’ With a young team, you don’t know what sinks in and what doesn’t sink in.
“The first game … I don’t think you’ll talk to a (single) coach that would say he’s confident.”
The numbers are on the Bonnies’ side.
Bona is 48-4 in home openers played in the RC, including a 10-2 mark under Schmidt — and those losses came in each of the last two years with key players injured. It’s won its last two games against the Bobcats (in 2014 and ‘15) by an average of 12.5 points.
And that’s essentially where the line is tonight, with Bona giving 12 against a rebuilding Ohio team, per sportsline.com.
Additionally, the Bonnies have had two opportunities to work out their kinks in a competitive environment, the last in Wednesday’s 90-45 exhibition triumph over Division III Alfred. And aside from juco transfer Jaren English, expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a broken hand, they’re healthier: sophomore center Osun Osunniyi, who’s been limited after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery and played just 10 minutes in the exhibition, could see a bigger workload tonight.
“I’m 100 percent,” he said. “I’ve been cleared to play, I’ve been going hard in practice every single day, I just have to get back into game shape, that’s all it is.”
Bona’s youth was apparent early in its win over the Saxons; it committed eight turnovers, went 0-for-11 from 3-point range and allowed Alfred to stick around in the first half before ultimately pulling away.
The takeaway from that game: The need to play hard from start to finish.
“For any young team, any young player, it’s almost like consistent effort is really hard,” Schmidt noted. “They need to play every possession like it’s their last possession.
“The young guys always think, ‘it’s only one possession, we’ll get it next time,’ but every possession matters. It’s the small things, it really is — blocking out, taking care of the basketball, setting the right screen. Those little things for young players are huge.”
Much like Bona, Ohio is young, with 11 of 14 players entering either their freshman or sophomore campaigns under first-year coach Jeff Boals, who replaces the fired Saul Phillips.
But unlike the Bonnies, selected to finish fifth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, not much is expected of the Bobcats, who were pegged to finish last (among 6 teams) in the MAC East projection.
Still, Ohio has a capable core in returning point guard Jason Preston, who totaled 13 points and 14 assists in the team’s “secret scrimmage” against Robert Morris, guard Jordan Dartis, a former all-conference pick who’s back after missing all of last season with an injury, and forward Ben Vander Plas (9 points, 5 rebounds), who made the MAC All-Freshman Team.
It also welcomes in 6-foot-10 Georgia Tech transfer Sylvester Ogbonda, who averaged two points and two rebounds with the Yellowjackets.
And that has Bona’s attention.
“They have a really good backcourt,” Schmidt said of the Bobcats, who have gone 14-17 in each of the last two seasons, but had been strong before that, winning 20-plus games in six of eight seasons from 2009-’17. “Their point guard is really good — he reminds me of (NBA player and former UCLA star Lonzo Ball). He has a really good skillset and an uncanny ability to pass the ball. Their No. 2 guard (Dartis) can really shoot it.
“They’re young, and coach Boals is putting in his system, but they’re a talented group, and it’s going to be a tough game.”
For nearly eight months, Bona has been driven by its missed opportunity against the Billikens. Aside from that, Schmidt’s team is eager to prove itself as an A-10 title contender again this year despite having only one scholarship senior and one junior on its roster.
It can take the first step toward doing that tonight against Ohio — the first game in anticipated 100th season.
“It’s been a long time since the Saint Louis game,” said Schmidt, who acknowledged that the outcome, when Bona allowed a 15-point first-half lead to dissipate into a stinging loss, could be a source of motivation entering the 2019-20 season.
“I always say this is the best time of the year, it’s the start of basketball season. That’s what we live for, it’s what we work 365 days for — to have those 32 or 33 opportunities. This is what we do. It’s exciting to start another year.”