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Bucky Gleason: St. Bonaventure's invitation to Big Dance comes with mixed emotions

ALLEGANY – Mark Schmidt manufactured a happy face and positive spin after digesting the situation, knowing it could have been considerably worse. St. Bonaventure is going to the NCAA Tournament after receiving an at-large invitation. The Bonnies will be matched up against storied UCLA.

It's all good, but players and fans reacted like they believed it deserved better Sunday after the Selection Committee unveiled the 68 teams going to the Big Dance. Bona will play UCLA on Tuesday in Dayton in a game reserved for bubble teams, which explained why they quickly tempered their emotions Sunday.

"It's a double-edged sword," Schmidt said. "I woke up this morning just hoping to get in. You just don't know what those eight people are doing in that room. We thought we would have been a higher seed, but they do what they do and we try to do what we do. We had a good enough resume to get into the dance."

For all the whining about the Bonnies getting snubbed two years ago, they shouldn't complain too much about being forced into a play-in game. Three years ago, Dayton finished 25-8 in the regular season with four wins over teams from power conferences, and was second in the A-10. The Flyers beat Boise State in the First Four and beat Providence before losing in the Round of 32.

St. Bonaventure had solid argument for a No. 11 seed without the play-in game, but it easily could have been entirely passed over. Looking back, the Bonnies were dangerously close to playing in the National Invitation Tournament despite putting together a 13-game winning streak en route to 25 victories.

If they won only 12 straight games, lost to Richmond in the quarterfinals last Friday or had one hiccup between Jan. 19 and Saturday, they would be watching the Big Dance with a community in mourning. In that sense, they're fortunate to receive the same treatment Dayton was given three years ago.

"I'm happy to be in the tournament," senior guard Jaylen Adams said. "We thought we would be a little higher. It's still an accomplishment for us three seniors. We're just excited to go down there and compete."

St. Bonaventure to play UCLA in First Four of NCAA Tournament

St. Bonaventure will be playing a college hoops heavyweight in UCLA, at least in terms of history. Older generations remember UCLA for winning a record 88 straight games in the early 1970s, its 11 national championships and 18 Final Four appearances over 48 seasons they played in the Big Dance.

These Bruins aren't your father's or grandfather's Bruins, however. UCLA hasn't won a national title since 1994-95. It won 31 games last season before getting bounced in the regional semifinals. UCLA finished in third in the Pac-12 with an 11-7 record and fell to 21-11 after losing, 78-67, to 15th-ranked Arizona in the conference tourney.

It makes for an interesting matchup going into March Madness. St. Bonaventure will be among the smallest schools in the tournament along with Davidson. I'm guessing not too many people will be picking the Bonnies in their office pools.

"We feel like the underdog, and we have something to prove," Schmidt said. "Think about this: It's U-C-L-A. It's UCLA. It's going to be just another game, but our guys have grown up as underdogs. They're not going to look at UCLA like Bill Walton. They don't even know who Bill Walton is."

The mix of emotions after the brackets were announced seemed fitting considering the range of emotions Bona fans felt all afternoon. You could practically hear groans across campus when Davidson beat Rhode Island and earned an automatic bid, triggering anxiety that comes with being a diehard Bona fan.

It's important to understand St. Bonaventure's basketball community is an isolated subculture of Buffalo fans. It's what you get when putting Western New York's fan base in the dryer and their anxiety on steroids. All you can do is pray for the poor souls who love the Bills and Sabres and are devout Bona fans.

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The inferiority complex that has become part of Buffalo's DNA runs even deeper in the Southern Tier after generations of outsiders treated them as if they're removed from modern civilization. There is both sad truth and genuine charm in the fact that Bona basketball has a direct impact on the overall happiness of the community.

And that's why, despite the Bonnies' 25-7 record, which included quality wins over Syracuse, Maryland, Rhode Island, Buffalo and others – not to mention the 13-game winning streak that was ended by a Davidson team that won the A-10 tournament – were downright terrified Sunday afternoon.

The same people who believed less than 48 hours earlier that the Bonnies had secured a spot with the win over Richmond, giving the university enough confidence to stage a watch party. Fans strolled into the Reilly Center for a celebration but looked like they had signed up for Russian roulette before the invitation list was revealed.

Have ye no faith?

The Bonnies are in the Big Dance, and that's all that matters. It was the goal when the season began. Their next goal is beating UCLA and proving once again that they can compete with the big boys. The harsh reality is they don't have a choice.

"At the end of the day, we're in the tournament," senior guard Matt Mobley said. "I don't know how you could be mad about that. Things happen for a reason. We're going to play to the best of our abilities."

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