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St. Bonaventure building a case for bid to NCAA Tournament

Mark Schmidt had all the requisite coaching cliches at the ready. St. Bonaventure needs to take things one day at a time. They can’t afford to get ahead of themselves. They need to “keep chopping wood” and strive to get better every day.

But when pressed, the Bona men’s coach admitted that it’s hard to ignore the issue that swirls around any surging mid-major team at this point of the college basketball season:

Are the Bonnies making a case for a potential NCAA at-large berth?

“We’re not even on what they call the bubble,” Schmidt said Monday. “So we’ve got a long way to go, and we have to continue to work.”

It’s true enough. The Bonnies were not even listed among the first four teams out in Joe Lunardi’s well-respected Bracketology update on ESPN.com Monday morning. They were among the ignominious “second four out,” despite a 17-6 record and season-high 34 RPI.

So Bona, which is enjoying one of its finest seasons in memory after being picked for ninth in the Atlantic-10, does appear to have much work left to do if it hopes to be in a position for an at-large bid a month from now – assuming it doesn’t win the A-10 Tournament.

They’re certainly building a case for themselves. Sunday’s home win over George Washington, the Bonnies’ fifth in a row, left them alone in fourth place in the highly competitive A-10, just one game back of Saint Joseph’s and VCU – both considered NCAA teams in Lunardi’s bracket – and a full two games clear of GW.

Local hoop followers should pause for a moment to marvel at what Schmidt’s squad has accomplished to this point. This is the first time St. Bonaventure has been 9-3 in the A-10 since the NCAA tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

By merely splitting their final six league games, the Bonnies would win 12 games in the A-10 for the first time. If they win four of six, they’ll finish 13-5, which would be their best conference record, percentage-wise, since they went 10-4 in the league in 1982-83.

The 2011-12 team that won the A-10 tournament with Andrew Nicholson to earn the league’s automatic bid, went 10-6 in the league. The 1999-00 team that reached the Big Dance under Jim Baron went 11-5, the most victories ever for the Bonnies in the league.

That 2000 team, led by Tim Winn and Caswell Cyrus, is the only Western New York team to earn an at-large NCAA berth in the 64-team tournament era. When I asked Schmidt if he knew how rare it was for a local team to get an at-large, he laughed out loud.

“Yeah,” he said. “Like I told our guys after GW, we had a great crowd. Appreciate what you’re going through. Don’t be satisfied and just continue to work hard. We talk about chopping wood all the time. We got to continue to do that.”

He knows the bracket boys aren’t ready to show Bona respect. The players see it. They know what they’re up against.

“That’s why you have to block out the noise,” Schmidt said. “People look at me odd, but we haven’t done anything yet. We’re 17-6 and we have to get more victories. The only thing that’s guaranteed right now is 17 victories, and that’s not enough.”

The standard seems to be rising for the A-10, despite its No. 7 power ranking. The league got three bids last year, after getting six in 2013-14. Dayton had 25 wins and got an at-large. Davidson got in with 24. VCU, which won the A-10 tourney and automatic bid, won 26 games.

The Bonnies probably need to finish strong in the regular season and make a run at the A-10 tourney in Brooklyn next month. They can’t afford bad losses. They need to win Wednesday at LaSalle, which has one league win.

More inspired play from sophomore guard Jaylen Adams won’t hurt. Adams has played like a man with his eyes on the NCAAs during the five-game win streak, averaging 20 points and 5 assists while shooting 53 percent from the field and 96 from the line (Bona leads the nation in foul shooting).

A win Saturday at Dayton, which is 11-1 in the A-10 and ranked 15th in the country, would be an enormous boost. But a loss won’t hurt them. Dropping any of their three remaining games against second-division teams (home vs. Duquesne and UMass, at St. Louis) would damage their hopes.

The game against Saint Joseph’s in Rochester on March 2 could have major implications.

The Bonnies beat St. Joe’s by 10 in Philly two weeks ago. You’d think a sweep of the Hawks would move Bona ahead of them in the eyes of the committee.

Say the Bonnies are 13-5 in the league and 21-8 overall record heading to Brooklyn. They’d have a bye to the quarterfinals. They might need to reach the final to be safe for an at-large berth.

That’s how it played out in 2000, when they lost the A-10 final and squeaked into the Dance as a No. 12 seed.

The selection committee likes teams that finish strong. The Bonnies have won five in a row. They played in a strong league. The A-10 got six bids to the NCAAs two years ago, five in 2013. Going 13-5 in that league ought to be a persuasive argument, but I’ve learned to be wary of the committee.

“Give our guys credit,” Schmidt said. “I’m not sure anybody thought we’d be 17-6 at this point. It’s exciting to be having the type of year that we’re having. But we can’t be satisfied. We’ve got to continue to work. I think the GW game gave us some exposure. But at the same time, we have six games left. Hopefully, we can finish out strong and make our case.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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