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Brave New World

It’s different, right?

The uniforms are the same. Sometimes they read “St. Bonaventure” on the front. Sometimes we get the stylized “Bonnies” instead. Sometimes, there’ll be a reason to dig out the throwbacks, the ones that say “St. Bona” on them and evoke so many of the best and most lasting basketball memories of all.

The Reilly Center is the same. Oh, it’s been modified over the years. There are bleachers behind both end lines, which weren’t there when it was called the “UC.” There’s hardwood on the floor now, not tartan, and there’s a nice indoor box behind one of the baskets where the more ardent supporters can commiserate before and after these games that still fill all of us with such energy on even the coldest winter nights.

Mark Schmidt is still there, of course. This is his 17th year. When the Bonnies battered Niagara on Wednesday night at the Taps Gallagher Center 94-60, that was his 370th win. The team is off to a terrific December start; even that is more the rule than the exception for most of the past dozen or so years.

Still…it’s different. St. Bonaventure is experiencing what the rest of college basketball is experiencing, adapting as the sport adapts, adjusting as the landscape adjusts, seemingly by the day, certainly by the year. It is a different cadence now. Time was, there was a reliable rhythm to following your favorite team and it went something like this:

1. Get to learn the freshmen: their names, their games, marvel at the things they do well, dream about the players they can become.

2. Watch the best of the freshmen blossom as sophomores.

3. See them move to the upperclass, learn to be leaders, learn to teach the incoming first- and second-year players how to play as a Bonnie plays and how to act as a Bonaventure man acts.

4. See the seniors as they savor every minute of their final years, as they try to squeeze every last memory of their swindling days as RC stars. 

Oh, there would be some outliers. Sometimes kids got hurt, had to redshirt a year, got to stay for a fifth season. Sometimes kids transferred out, for any number of reasons; usually an equal (though modest) few would transfer in, augmenting the dynamics. Mostly, though, you had a handle on the year-to-year.

We all know that part of the sport’s history belongs to some dusty yesterday now.

And so we adapt. We adjust. And for now, at 7-2, with a team that seems to be getting better and better the more they learn to play with each other, we can see that, for now, we are doing well in the sometimes-frightening new frontier – mostly because we have experienced the whole gamut of it, and in such short order. Last year, we saw bluntly the impact of freer player movement. The core of the team that delivered St. Bonaventure to the NCAA Tournament as juniors, and to the final four of the NIT as seniors, who’d helped win 76 games in four years, splintered apart. There was very little resentment to this, nor should there have been: they’d given the school four years. They’d earned their diplomas. And so many of us found 2022-23 to be a unique kind of experience, because we not only rooted for the Bonnies but also for Iowa State, for Florida and for Alabama. 

So nowhere in America was the new normal of college basketball felt more, and in record fashion. Last year was an entirely new team. They went 14-18. There were still some intoxicating highs: beating Notre Dame in Brooklyn, beating VCU in Richmond, beating Dayton in the RC. There were other nights that didn’t go quite so well.

And it was hard to escape the gnawing question: had the sportfLinally, at long last, passed St. Bonaventure by? How could we adapt? How could we adjust?

How could we compete?

And in truth: that’s what makes these first nine games of the season so encouraging, even if the damned Griffs came to the RC and stole one from us early on. What we see wearing those familiar uniforms, playing in that wonderful old gym, is St. Bonaventure’s first real answer to what we can be in this Brave New World of Name, Image and Likeness and the transfer portal.

We can start with the traditional contributors, the sophomores who started here as freshmen. And so far both have taken the course of that old, familiar path. Both Barry Evans and Assa Essamvous contributed as freshmen. Essamvous was named to the Atlantic 10’s all-rookie team and shot 42 percent from 3. Evans played in all 32 games but already, in eight games as a sophomore, had shown the kind of growth and development that helped make players like Dion Wright and LaDarien Griffin such foundational program players.

But this is a team, when healthy, that goes nine players deep. And seven of them started their careers elsewhere, from Saint Peter’s (Daryl Banks) to Cincinnati (Mika Adams Woods), from Bryant (Charles Pride) to Morgan State (Chad Venning), from Holy Cross (Kyrell Luc) to GW (Noel Brown) to Hartford (Moses Flowers).

Brave New World, indeed. 

We have already seen what the fruits of these labors can yield. We have seen them beat Oklahoma State out of the Big 12 – rack up another Power Six notch in the Bonnies’ belt – and look, at times, with a team with a boundless ceiling. There were so many intriguing players on the roster that the Bonnies were voted third in the A-10 preseason poll – a testament to both the talent in the room and the voters’ belief that Schmidt would know exactly what to do with it. 

So far, so good.

It’s early, sure. There’s a lot of season left. There’s all of the A-10 season left. But so far, St. Bonaventure has proven equal to the task. That isn’t easy to sustain in the Brave New World, no. It takes levels of commitment and sustenance – from supporters, alumni and fans in addition to the coaches and the staff – that are different than they’ve ever been, as well as more essential than they’ve ever been. 

That part, that’s different, sure.

So far, the thing that’s most familiar – besides the uniforms, besides the court and the coach, besides the way the Burton hums so beautifully after a big win – is the winning. That has become so wonderfully familiar across this last magnificent decade or so. It’s no small thing. And it’s no accident, either.

We’ve always felt like we all are a part of the best Bonnies season. It’s just more true now than it’s ever been before.

Mike Vaccaro

SBU ‘89 


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