Made my second trip down to the Reilly Center Wednesday night and watched the Bonnies toy with a Saint Louis team that was supposedly bucking to join the A-10 elite. Let's put it this way. Saint Louis looked as bad as the Bonnies did the last time I saw them, a 62-51 loss to Saint Joseph's back on Jan. 14. Something tells me the Billikens are 17-11 based on the the preferential treatment they get at home with an I-have-clout veteran coach on the bench. I mean, 2-8 on the road speaks volumes.
A winning season (and certainly a break-even season) remains a possibility in Olean. But how close is this program to significantly turning the corner under second-year coach Mark Schmidt? My thoughts:
Point guard Malcolm Eleby has been playing better of late, but I didn't see any signs of it against Saint Louis. In Eleby's defense, he's still only a sophomore (but so is Niagara's Anthony Nelson, who's miles ahead). Ray Blackburn, the junior from Lackawanna, gave the offense a nice first-half lift Wednesday when he spelled Eleby. I understand Schmidt's desire to utilize Blackburn as a change-of-pace point guard. But Eleby has to seize the minutes by playing smarter and under control. Few teams make great strides without a reliable starting point guard. (And, no, I don't think Blackburn is next season's answer. He's perfect for his role).
Jonathan Hall had been in a bit of a funk before lighting it up Wednesday. I don't get it. He's awfully tough to match up again and should be the offense's No. 1 option until 6-9 freshman center Andrew Nicholson finds his comfort zone. Why Majerus didn't try to contain Hall (31 points) with a zone is mystifying. Coaching ego at work is what that was.
Nicholson probably will be the A-10 rookie of the year, but the growing pains are evident. He was passive in the low post on both ends Wednesday while picking up two quick fouls and heading to the bench. I sense he's at the crossroads in his development. Officials are nit-picking him something fierce and he's losing assertiveness as a result (Schmidt disputes that, but it's evident). If Nicholson gets his confidence and Hall keeps pounding it inside, teams might have no choice but to zone the Bonnies, who have keep-em-honest outside options in Chris Mathews and Michael Davenport.
Schmidt's done a solid job rejuvenating this program, but next season he needs to define specific roles and strategies based on more seasoned personnel. There's no reason he shouldn't finish in the top half of the A-10 in '09-10. Seriously.
-- Bob DiCesare