NEW YORK – Mark Schmidt was named Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year earlier this week in what must have been his most lopsided victory of the season. St. Bonaventure was picked to finish eighth in the conference preseason poll, and even that seemed wishful thinking at best.
The Bonnies shocked everyone, of course, including themselves. They rattled off 10 victories in their final 11 games. The same team that needed a long lens for a glimpse at powerhouses like Dayton and Virginia Commonwealth when the year began shared the conference championship with them when it was over.
Schmidt was named the top coach, an honor he richly deserved this year and perhaps the past several seasons. No coach in the Atlantic 10 has overcome more challenges when it comes to recruiting, facilities and financial support that have become common for wealthy schools like Richmond and Davidson.
The Bonnies finished the regular season 14-4 in the conference, the most wins they ever had in the A-10. They were 22-7 overall, giving them their first 20-win season in 39 years. They won the conference title with Dayton and VCU and ascended to No. 28 on the Ratings Percentage Index. It has been an impressive season, indeed.
Schmidt would be the first to say, however, that this is no time for a victory lap for the third-smallest Division I basketball school in the country. The Bonnies didn’t come all this way, particularly in the past six weeks, to flame out in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Unlike other schools, they don’t have that luxury when it comes to the NCAAs selection committee.
The Bonnies will likely go as far as their Big Three – guards Marcus Posley and Jaylen Adams and forward Dion Wright – will take them. They combined for 53.9 points per game, or nearly 70 percent of their offense, this season.
“What’s important is winning,” Schmidt said Thursday after practice. “Everything will take care of itself if we do that. Everybody is saying, ‘are you in’ and ‘are you out.’ Our goal is to win the Atlantic 10 tournament. That takes everything out of the equation with the automatic bid. We can’t do that until we win the first game.”
The goal every season is reaching the Big Dance. But the Bonnies aren’t sitting around with their collective hand extended and hoping some pretty woman shows up on their front porch. They’re looking to flex and their muscles during the A-10 tourney and barge through the front door of the NCAAs.
And the only surefire way is winning the tournament. St. Bonaventure, the third seed in the A-10, will play their first game Friday night. They had practice at Long Island University-Brooklyn before waiting for the winner of the Davidson-La Salle game Thursday night in the Barclays Center.
Bona beat Davidson at home in the conference opener, the first sign the Bonnies could be better than expected. St. Bonaventure won five straight conference games before falling at La Salle last month. If the Davidson win injected confidence, the La Salle loss was a heavy dose of reality.
There are no gimmes in the A-10.
Schmidt for years has embraced the idea that Bona can beat anybody, and lose to anybody, on a given night. It’s the nature of the conference. He squeezed every ounce from his team during the regular season, and now he needs a little more. One more win Friday night should be enough.
Other than the Feb. 17 hiccup against La Salle, which also beat Dayton, the Bonnies have been an unselfish and resourceful team since a near-flawless second half Jan. 31 against Richmond. It’s time to get greedy without giving the selection committee a reason to exclude them.
“We had a good season this year, but we just have to keep winning,” Wright said. “Why settle for less, right? Everybody has the mentality of being the regular-season champs. We don’t want to settle for less. We want to win it all.”
If you’re looking for a nice, juicy headache, pay attention to bracketologists.
For what it’s worth, ESPN guru Joe Lunardi had St. Bonaventure on the bubble for an at-large berth in the NCAAs. Meanwhile, he had Saint Joseph’s locking up a 10th seed. As expected, Bona fans were outraged. The Bonnies beat St. Joe’s twice this season and finished ahead of the Hawks in the conference standings.
Lunardi is no fool, however, and he could come away looking like a genius. If St. Joe’s wins the A-10 tourney, Dayton and VCU reach the semifinals and Bona is ousted Friday night, the Bonnies could be in serious trouble. It’s possible.
“But if we win it all, they can’t kick us out,” Posley said. “That’s the main thing we’re focused on. We’re not focused on winning one game and receiving an at-large bid or two games and receiving an at-large bid. If you win the A-10, it’s automatic. That’s our main thing.”
The A-10 has sent three or more teams to the NCAAs for nine straight seasons. Three years ago, the conference sent six teams. Two years ago, it was five. Last season, only conference champ Davidson, conference tourney winner VCU and perennial power Dayton received invitations. All three won 24 games or more.
In the past five years, A-10 teams that earned at-large bids averaged more than 25 victories per season during the regular season. St. Bonaventure was the only team during that span to post fewer than 21 wins. It happened in 2012, when they knocked off St. Joe’s en route to winning the conference tournament.
At risk of sounding like a homer, which would be a first, the Bonnies should be fine if they advance to the A-10 semifinals. It would validate their co-conference title and reaffirm the idea they’re as good as anybody. They would show people who didn’t see them win so many nail-biters that they’re comfortable playing under pressure.
Now, they want more.
“We control our own destiny rather than have somebody sitting in a room and trying to decide if Bonaventure is good enough,” Schmidt said. “It may come down to that. If it does hopefully our resume is good enough. If it isn’t, it isn’t. We can’t worry about that right now. We have to do our jobs and prepare for Friday night.”