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All it takes is One Good Week

By Mike Vaccaro 


You hear the refrains a lot, the more the games stack up, the way the season has twisted and turned and bobbed and weaved.

“I don’t get this team …”

“How can we look so good against [pick a team] and look so horrid against [pick a team]? “We look like we can beat anyone …”

“We look like we can lose to everyone …”


If it helps at all, you’re not alone. And that’s not just including the admittedly limited prism of your fellow fans of St. Bonaventure basketball … although the agonies and ecstasies are admittedly stronger on either end of that spectrum, since that’s the one you care about.


No, just about every precinct of college basketball has sung a similar song at one time or another this year. Part of that is the parity that now rules in the sport, since there are more elite, highly skilled players than ever before which naturally means more competitive teams than ever before, simply because of basic mathematics.


But there’s something else at work, of course, and to minimalize or marginalize its effect is to simply ignore the 800-pound pink elephant in the gym. The era of player freedom has meant a transitory feel to every roster, on every campus, affecting every school that fields a Division I roster. It is a dual-headed issue: the advent of Name, Image and Likeness, and the growth of the transfer portal. 


Often these things go hand-in-hand in the modern game. Programs like St. Bonaventure have long played the transfer game in its once-limited iteration – often, kids would transfer out if it was clear the limited playing time they received as freshmen wasn’t likely to improve as sophomores or as upperclassmen. Just as often, kids seeking opportunities – either scratching out reduced playing time at levels higher than St. Bonaventure, or seeking a better standard of play at programs lower on the scale – would transfer in.


That meant a player or two every year.


Maybe every other year, Those days are as much a part of college basketball’s past as a center jump after every basket and laces on the balls. Ideally, you’d like to recruit players who go through the standard four-year process, and fans this year seem to have really taken to the Bonnies’ two impactful sophomores, the sweet-shooting and clutch-rebounding Assa Essamvous and hard-working, two-way athletic dynamo, Barry Evans. They are the building blocks of Bonnies’ homegrown foundation. 


By necessity, the other seven players who’ve comprised the Bonnies’ nine-man rotation all started their careers elsewhere. Together, their talent level is, in many ways, higher and deeper than even the Bonnies’ most recent NCAA Tournament teams of 2012, 2018 and 2021. But those other teams all had years – not months; years – to grow together, to learn to play together, to understand the hidden wrinkles that separate excellent teams from very good teams.


This team has had months.


This is not a complaint, and the fact of it shouldn’t be grounds for loud complaint. That is basketball, and it is a testament both to the coaching staff’s ability to put together a quality roster on the Ply and those of you who have already helped to underwrite the assembly of that team. As we head into the bell lap of the 2022-23 season, the Bonnies sit at 18-10, awaiting the conference tournament in 2 ½ weeks. And when all 15 Atlantic 10 teams gather at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center starting on March 12, it seems almost certain that they will engineer one of the most fascinating basketball championships the league has ever seen.


There is one other thing: 


There is every reason to believe that the Bonnies have the goods to be one of the players that determines how things will shake out. For starters, after so many starts and stops to the season, they seem to be playing their very best basketball of the season. Last Saturday they walked into Amherst, Mass., and ruined UMass’ Senior Day by finishing off a season sweep of the Minutemen that may well have crucial tiebreaker ramifications in Brooklyn.


Then, Tuesday night, in a scene that has been played and replayed time and again ever since the Reilly Center opened its doors for the first time in 1966, an excellent team – in this case the Loyola of Chicago Ramblers, tied for first place in the conference – never knew what hit them as they were swamped by the raucous game-day atmosphere and a swarming Bonnies attack. That 79-64 win was also No. 300 for Mark Schmidt as the Bonnies’ head coach. Dayton has been the league’s standard-bearer all year, and while they are the only team that presently is nationally ranked at No. 21, they’ve lost three conference games – to Richmond, VCU and George Mason. As of Tuesday, eight of the league’s 15 teams were within one game of .500 in the conference standings. It really is anyone’s tournament. It really is about One Good Week in Brooklyn. 


And here’s the thing: while the Bonnies have undoubtedly flummoxed and frustrated you this year, while they’ve left you scratching your head on some nights and then screaming yourself hoarse four nights later, here are two truths about what lies ahead for them – one of the harsh, one of them hopeful.


1. They are not getting an at-large bid. That likely died with the fourth conference loss, though it just as likely perished with the third non-conference loss. Still, if we’re being completely honest, it largely vanished at that nebulous point sometime in the last 10 years when the A-10 morphed from a league that regularly received three and four NCAA bids to one often lucky to get two. And let’s be honest: we have seen what an NCAA at-large team looks like (the fabled ’18 team that wound up knocking off UCLA in Dayton) and what a near-miss one looks like (the team two years earlier still stinging from being left out of the draw). And this team isn’t the equal of those teams. Accept that and move on.


2. They absolutely could run the table in Brooklyn. They went toe-to-toe with Dayton in Dayton. They’ve beaten VCU twice. If the downside of having a team of strangers trying to get to know each other is a distinct disadvantage across the first 4 ½ months of a season, the fact that those erstwhile strangers have had that time to develop and to jell is a huge benePit. And so is this: they are good enough to get it done. Plenty good enough.


They are certainly good enough to replicate what three teams from three very different eras of St. Bonaventure basketball did, getting all the way to the doorstep in tournaments in which they absolutely needed One Good Week. The first time was 1984. Jim O’Brien was in his second year, and the Bonnies got hit early and often by the injury bug, and much like this year’s team they enjoyed some lofty highs and some egregious lows and stumbled into the A-10 tournament in Morgantown, W.Va., with a 15-12 record, just 8-10 and seventh place in the league. Then some funny things began to happen. 


After ousting last-place Penn State in a preliminary game, the Bonnies kicked second-seeded St. Joseph’s out of NCAA consideration and knocked them into the NIT with a heart-stopping 68-67 win. A night later, the Bonnies not only pulled off a second-straight upset, beating third-seeded GW 81-75, they watched West Virginia topple Temple – 18-0 during the regular A-10 season – setting up the No. 4 and No. 7 seeds in the winner-take-all championship game.


The homecourt West Virginia Coliseum ultimately proved too much, and the Mountaineers ended the Bonnies’ dreams with a 59-56 win in the conference championship. But for years that stood as the singular reminder for Bonnies teams of all that could happen with One Good Week. 


The 2011-12 team fueled by Andrew Nicholson certainly reminded us of the potential magic inherent in March, since they rose out of the 4 seed by beating St. Joe’s, UMass and Xavier on consecutive days in Atlantic City to win the title. That team, in many ways, not only fulPilled the high expectations it had set for itself at the start of the season, it announced a new era of relevance for the program as a whole.


It was seven years later when another St. Bonaventure team entered the A-10 tournament a decisive longshot, a year after the Jalen Adams Era teams had solidiPied the program’s stature in the A-10 Pirmament. Those Bonnies had been 4-10 and they’d been 9-14 but they hit their stride in February – sound familiar? – and came into the A-10 Tournament in Brooklyn a 4 seed – and were themselves given a solid on their Pirst day of play, not only knocking out Pifth-seeded George Mason 76-67 but also seeing eighth-seeded Rhode Island topple No. 1 VCU that same day.


And when the Bonnies turned around and tuned up Rhody, 68-51, in the semiPinals, it set up one of the most electric games the Bonnies have ever played in March. As in ’84, it almost didn’t matter that the quest fell short, that Nelson Kaputo’s corner 3 at the buzzer bounced harmlessly away and delivered St. Louis a 55-53 win.


What mattered was the reminder that if you have the right team playing the right way at the right time, anything is possible. And so, anything is. Never more so than this year, this roller coaster ride of peaks and valleys, a season in which the Bonnies have gone 5-2 against the Top Six teams in the league … and 4-5 against the Bottom Eight. Anything is possible. Everything is on the table.


All it takes is One Good Week.


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