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BONA HOPES TO TAKE STEP TOWARD NCAA'S TONIGHT

In college basketball, you spend four months building your resume so it looks good come March. St. Bonaventure can add another key line of experience to its portfolio tonight by surviving its Reilly Center showdown with Kent (7:30; Radio 1300, 95.7 FM).

Bona (6-1) will be gunning for its first six-game winning streak since taking seven straight midway through the 1982-83 season.

Kent (4-1), which won 23 games last year and earned its first NCAA Tournament berth, hasn't played since a 73-55 win Dec. 11 over Wisconsin-Green Bay. It also owns two wins over Youngstown State and a victory over Division III Wisconsin-Parkside. Its only loss was Dec. 8 at Michigan, 75-73.

Tonight's game represents another key nonconference challenge for the Bonnies, who are slowly making a push into college basketball's elite. Bona has been cracking the "also receiving votes" categories in the national polls the last two weeks (it got five points in this week's AP poll) and is really making headway in the all-important Ratings Percentage Index.

The RPIs, the main tool used by the NCAA selection committee for postseason play, list Bona at No. 22 in the nation through Sunday among the 318 Division I schools. The RPIs consider a team's record, its strength of schedule, and its opponents' schedule strength.

So far, a Bona team starting three seniors and a junior has been living up to its preseason billing as a contender for its first NCAA berth since 1978.

"They're providing leadership and understanding what it takes," Bona coach Jim Baron said of his upperclassmen on Monday's Atlantic 10 conference call. "I'm quite pleased up to now but I know it's just game to game and trying to keep getting better."

An RPI in the 20s would not be nearly as significant at this stage of the season for, say, Canisius or Niagara. That's because only one or two of their Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opponents would have an RPI in the top 100 and the Griffs and Eagles will thus see their own ranking drop because of a weaker schedule.

Bona, meanwhile, will play an Atlantic 10 Conference schedule filled with quality opponents. In fact, eight of the top 61 in the RPIs through Sunday are A-10 schools.

(For the record, Niagara enters the week with an RPI of 159, Canisius is at 190 and UB is at 247.)

Teams' NCAA chances are routinely aided or killed by what they do in early-season nonconference games. Bona already owns wins over North Carolina-Charlotte, Colorado State and USC, three teams from power conferences.

A win over Kent, which could emerge from the Mid-American Conference with another 20-win season, would rank as another solid victory.

The Bonnies have been a big part in the Atlantic 10's strong start in nonleague play. The A-10 is fifth in conference RPI, behind only the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-10.

The A-10's top wins thus far include Xavier's victory over then-No. 1 Cincinnati on Saturday, Dayton's wins over Kentucky and New Mexico, George Washington's win over Maryland, Temple's victories over Gonzaga and Villanova and Bona's trio of victories.

"The teams that weren't as good in terms of number of wins last year have returned a lot of guys," Xavier coach Skip Prosser said Monday. "Bonnies and Dayton are getting good wins and that improves the strength of the whole conference."

"I am not surprised by our league," Baron added. "I've heard people say that we're down but we have teams and coaches who have done an outstanding job to set a tone for the season when they move outside the league. We have that type of potential."

The Bonnies survived a scare Saturday at Florida International, posting a 78-70 overtime win. They got balanced scoring as five players scored either 14 or 16 points. Center Caswell Cyrus had 14 points, five rebounds and three blocks despite a strained arch suffered in practice Thursday that nearly kept him out of game.

Cyrus is still hobbled but expected to be available tonight.

"He showed a lot of character by playing," Baron said of Saturday's game.

The Bonnies will need Cyrus because Kent has four players who average in double figures, led by senior center John Whorton. The 6-foot-8, 250-pounder paces the team in both scoring (12.0) and rebounding (6.4). He was the MVP of last year's MAC Tournament when Kent beat Wally Szczerbiak-led Miami of Ohio in the championship game.

"They're strong inside and they're definitely one of the top teams in that league," Baron said. "We have our work cut out for us and they've had 10 days to prepare so it will be tough."

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