Bona/VCU advance

St. Bonaventure’s Jalen Adaway (33) posts up against VCU’s Corey Douglas, Jr. during Bona’s victory over the Rams last season at the Reilly Center. The Bonnies and Rams will meet tonight for the first time since the 2021 Atlantic 10 championship game, the teams’ first matchup at the RC since last January.

ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — Perhaps “pivotal” isn’t the right word.

The Atlantic 10 season, after all, is only just now starting in full. And, with two of its games still needing to be rescheduled and the continuously uncertain nature caused by COVID-19, there’s never been more truth to Mark Schmidt’s oft-used mantra that every game is big.

But for the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team, this is, at the very least, a statement-making opportunity.

This is a nationally televised matchup between the league’s preseason favorite and one of its current hottest teams. It’s a pairing between the teams that met in last year’s Atlantic 10 Tournament title game and hope to reach that point again this year. It’s a chance for Bona to reestablish itself as the top dog following a 25-day pause and some of its uneven play both before and after.

And that opportunity comes tonight (7:30 p.m, ESPN2-TV, WPIG-FM) when Bona — in its first home game since Dec. 8 — meets VCU in a Friday Night Showcase contest inside the Reilly Center.

“I’m not sure (we’re saying) pivotal the second Atlantic 10 game of the year,” Schmidt said. “But … you only have 18 opportunities, and we might not even have 18 opportunities this year, so each one is special; no one is more important than the other.

“Even though it’s on ESPN, that’s great, but it doesn’t matter. It’s another game; we just gotta do the best job we can in preparing, and we know we gotta play really, really well to beat a team with the talent VCU has, and the momentum they’ve had.”

THE RAMS (10-4, 3-0) had been having a solid year already, notching non-league wins over Vanderbilt and Syracuse while hanging close with No. 1 Baylor (69-61 loss) and taking UConn to overtime (70-63) loss. But they’ve been even better since their own three-week COVID pause, winning at Dayton while crushing both La Salle (85-66) and George Washington on Tuesday (84-57) as part of a seven-game win streak overall.

Part of that rise can be attributed to health. VCU has back point guard Ace Baldwin Jr. (11 points, 5 assists), who missed the first part of the season with an achilles injury, and now seems to be at full strength. The other part is that VCU has simply been … VCU.

The Rams, with their trademark pressure defense, lead the A-10 and rank No. 10 nationally in turnovers forced (18.29 per game). They’ve also been the league’s best defensive unit in general, pacing the A-10 in scoring defense (57.1), field goal percentage ‘D’ (.371) and 3-point FG defense (.247), while sitting No. 1 nationally in the latter category. That’s helped to offset an offense that ranks last in the A-10 in points per game (63.4).

The Bonnies have done a quality job of handling that pressure in recent years and have long been equipped for games in the 50s and 60s. And those figure to be the elements they’ll be dealing with again tonight.

“The same way they usually play: very aggressive,” said Schmidt, when asked to assess the Rams, who would represent another Top 50-ish win for Bona’s resume (currently, they’re No. 53 in the NET). “Pressure defense, full court; in the halfcourt they’re shooting the ball better, but they turn people over …

“They’re just a pressure team, well-coached, they run good stuff, they’ve got long, athletic guys, they try to disrupt you. They’re playing really well, it seems like they’re connected and playing with a lot of confidence.”

Bona, too, has reason to be confident.

SCHMIDT’S team is coming in 1-0 (9-3 overall) after topping La Salle in overtime, 80-76, on Tuesday and will be playing in front of what promises to be a classically raucous RC crowd given the caliber of opponent and long layoff. It’s also facing largely the same team it took two of three from last year, including its memorable home comeback triumph last January and a 74-65 victory in the A-10 championship game … except minus reigning A-10 Player of the Year Bones Hyland, now with the NBA’s Nuggets.

That’s a group that includes leading scorer and preseason all-conference selection Vince Williams Jr. (11 points) and shot-blocking forward Hason Ward, and has added freshman guard Jayden Nunn (10 points).

VCU, AS a 40-minute pressing team, has plenty of depth, with 10-11 players logging at least 10 minutes per night. Bona, of course, has had a historically short bench, which came to a head on Tuesday, when its starters played an incredible 222 of 225 minutes.

Schmidt again defended the heavy use of those starters, noting that Bona used the same “Ironman Five” approach last season en route to a “double” league title. And though the Bonnies might be expected to go slightly deeper against VCU’s style, he said the deployment of his bench will continue to be a game-by-game feel.

“We shall see,” he said. “We determine that as the game is being played — who plays, who doesn’t play, guys that need rest. (It’s) got a lot to do with how the game’s played, how it’s officiated, if there’s a lot of stoppage. There’s a lot of things that are involved; it’s not just throwing guys out there just to throw guys out there. We’ll adapt as the game goes along.”

Bona may not collectively be back to full game shape, but it’s hoping it came one step closer in its game vs. La Salle.

“We’re probably not all the way back,” Schmidt acknowledged. “At this time of year, it’s almost like trying to get in shape during games; games are going to get us in shape … It’s still a work in progress. A lot of teams are going through this. We’re not full strength, but we make no excuses.

“The game’s gonna be played at 7:30 and we’re gonna try to show up and play as well as we can.”

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