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Bona and UB men are big surprises so far

The Big 4 college basketball season is getting a lot more exciting than expected.

Both St. Bonaventure and the University at Buffalo are far exceeding expectations at the midway point of their conference seasons. Both are in contention for a top-four seeding and a bye into the quarterfinals of their conference tournaments.

Not bad considering Bona was picked for eighth in the Atlantic 10 Conference, and UB endured an extreme makeover in the offseason.

Bona’s win at Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday moved it up to No. 46 in the nation in the Ratings Percentage Index, which the NCAA Tournament committee uses as a guide to pick and seed teams for the 68-team March Madness event. St. Joe’s ranks 37th in the RPI.

“I think this will get some people’s attention,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said after the game. “St. Joe’s was getting a lot of publicity and rightfully so. They’d won 14 out of 15. ... Us beating them, that can only help us and give us a little bit more respect.”

Canisius and Niagara, meanwhile, are sitting in also-ran positions in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Here’s how the Big 4 stack up halfway through the conference seasons:

St. Bonaventure

Record: 14-6, 6-3.

Ranking: No. 46 in the RPI.

Standing: Tied with George Washington for fourth in the A-10, behind Virginia Commonwealth (9-0), Dayton (8-1) and St. Joe’s (7-2).

Next up: Home vs. St. Louis, 2 p.m. Sunday.

Going right: Bona rides its “Big Three,” shooting guard Marcus Posley (19.1 ppg), point guard Jay Adams (18.5 ppg) and forward Dion Wright (16.2 ppg). Adams had a stellar freshman year and has made a big leap as a sophomore. His scoring is up 8.5 a game and he has improved his three-point percentage from 32.4 to 44.6, third best in the A-10. Last year he made 34 threes in 22 games. He has 54 in 20 games this year. Wright is second in the A-10 in rebounding at 9.3 a game.

“From a guard perspective, this is the best we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Schmidt said on where the Adams-Posley duo stands in his tenure.

Worries: Not too many. Bona’s supporting cast has been making progress. Jordan Tyson, the 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman, has averaged 16 minutes a game the last 10 games. His size is important on defense. Bona is over-reliant on Wright as its inside scoring presence.

Outlook: Of Bona’s last nine games, five are against teams in the bottom six of the 14-team Atlantic 10, and three of the other four are at home (George Washington, Duquesne and St. Joe’s). Bona has a great shot to get to 20 wins for the second time in Schmidt’s nine-year tenure. That should earn it a spot in the NIT, at least. The home game vs. GW on Feb. 13 is huge. If Bona can win that, a top-four seed is in sight. The A-10 got three NCAA bids last year, six in 2014.

Buffalo

Record: 13-9, 6-3.

Ranking: No. 86 in the RPI.

Standing: Tied for the second-best record in the MAC with Central Michigan and Kent State. Akron (7-2) is first. Northern Illinois and Ball State are tied at 5-4. UB lost to Akron but beat all of those other four teams. The East and West divisions don’t matter for the MAC Tournament seeding.

Next up: Home vs. Eastern Michigan, 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Going right: It’s amazing how first-year coach Nate Oats has brought the Bulls together considering seven of their top 10 players are new. UB is arguably the most athletic team in the MAC, and it has balance. The Bulls have six players averaging between 8.5 and 13.5 ppg, led by sophomore point guard Lamonte Bearden. Blake Hamilton, the 6-6 wing from California, has been UB’s Swiss-army knife. He’s 15th in the MAC in scoring (13.7 ppg) and ranks in the top 11 in rebounds, steals, FG percentage and three-point percentage.

Worries: UB isn’t a great perimeter shooting team and it’s young inside. Like Bona, UB has a 6-10 redshirt freshman (Ikenna Smart) showing promising signs.

Outlook: UB plays six of its last nine games at home. Plus, Kent State is stumbling after suffering season-ending injuries to two key guys. The Feb. 23 home game with Kent is key. But there’s only one easy-looking game on the schedule (Miami) because the MAC has so much parity. A 5-4 finish should get the Bulls a top-four seed.

Canisius

Record: 10-13, 5-7.

Ranking: No. 212 in the RPI.

Standing: Tied for seventh in the 11-team MAAC. The MAAC’s top three – Monmouth (10-2), Iona (9-2) and Siena (8-4) – look like a cut above.

Next up: Home vs. Iona at 7 p.m. Friday.

Going right: The Griffs have four of the top 30 scorers in conference in Phil Valenti (15.0), Kassius Robertson (14.0), Malcolm McMillan (13.0) and Jermaine Crumpton (10.9).

Worries: The Griffs rank 10th in field-goal percentage defense and 11th in three-point defense.

Outlook: Canisius, picked for sixth place, has lost three straight and seven of the last 10. All is not lost yet. The Griffs are only a game-and-a-half out of fourth. But they need to find defensive answers fast.

Niagara

Record: 6-17, 4-8.

Ranking: No. 301 in the RPI.

Standing: In 10th place, a half-game out of ninth.

Next up: Home vs. Rider at 7 p.m. Friday.

Going right: Sophomore guard Matt Scott has blossomed into a force, averaging 17.6 in league. Gritty junior Emile Blackman (14.0) is fun to watch. Niagara is second in scoring defense.

Worries: Niagara is last in scoring (62.6 ppg).

Outlook: Niagara’s backcourt is set. But looking ahead to the future, the Purple Eagles need to see some progress the rest of the way from front-court players Marvin Prochet, Justin Satchell and young Dominic Robb.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com