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Bucky Gleason: Two years after snub, Bona taking matters into own hands

ALLEGANY – Two years later, it remains an open wound for the four players who contributed that season. Jaylen Adams and Idris Taqqee were sophomores who played pivotal roles for a St. Bonaventure team that won 22 games while freshmen LaDarien Griffin and Nelson Kaputo came off the bench.

The Bonnies earned a share of the Atlantic 10 title in 2015-16, the best year to that point under coach Mark Schmidt. They soared to 30th in the Ratings Percentage Index, one of many variables in determining which teams were invited to the NCAA Tournament, and believed they were worthy.

And they were wrong.

"We thought we were in in 2016," Adams said. "We got comfortable, and we got bit."

St. Bonaventure fans at the time were quick to blame the selection committee, and they certainly had a case. Never before had a team finished first in the conference and had such a high RPI been left off the invitation list. The Bonnies appeared to be victims of small-school bias and had reasons to feel snubbed.

"We had a goal at the beginning of the year," Taqqee said. "To see it get taken away like for the first time in NCAA history, with us being that high, we were disappointed. We took care of business, and it didn't pay off."

The Bonnies ultimately had only themselves to blame. They allowed others to determine their fate with an early exit from the conference tournament. They fell to sixth-seeded Davidson in the A-10 quarterfinals and gave the committee reason to pause when considering teams on the bubble for the Big Dance.

It's precisely what they want to avoid this year after rattling off 12 straight conference victories and finishing 14-4, second in the A-10. The Bonnies have a considerably stronger resume this time around with their 24-6 record overall and a stronger nonconference schedule that contributed to reaching No. 22 in RPI.

Bona passes the eye test, but you never know. If their experience two years ago taught them anything, it was to not take anything for granted going into postseason play. The only way they can eliminate all doubts would be by winning the conference tournament and receiving the automatic bid.

Bona is plenty capable with Adams and Matt Mobley, the highest-scoring backcourt in the conference and among the best tandems in the nation. Junior Courtney Stockard has made a major impact, particularly in recent weeks. Taqqee is a terrific defensive player and rebounder. Griffin emerged this season.

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But there are a collection of teams that can win the tourney, starting with top-seeded Rhode Island. Davidson is a dangerous team along with Saint Joseph's and several others.

"The more wins we can accumulate, the better off we are," Schmidt said. "We've got a great resume. We’ve done what we needed to do up to this point. Now it's the next game. Our whole mindset is on the next game. We want our destiny in our own hands. How you do that is by winning the Atlantic 10 championship."

St. Bonaventure will play Friday against the winner of Richmond-Duquesne when the conference tournament resumes in Capital One Arena in Washington. The Bonnies haven't reached the NCAAs since the 2011-12 season, when they won the conference tourney as a fourth seed.

Every team wants to win their conference title. Of course, St. Bonaventure can't accomplish that goal without winning Friday. If the Bonnies get past Duquesne or Richmond, after winning all three games by a total of 18 points during the regular season, it could be enough for inclusion into March Madness.

"Both teams have given us games," Schmidt said. "We beat Richmond here in front of a sold out crowd. It was a tough game. We had two tough games against Duquesne. I'd rather be playing Alfred."

Looking back, the Bonnies' biggest problem two years ago was a nonconference schedule littered with games against teams from inferior leagues and a home loss to Hofstra. The committee ultimately believed their record was inflated and refused to make room for a fourth A-10 team after St. Joe's won the conference tourney.

St. Bonaventure beefed up its schedule this season and proved it belonged. The Bonnies beat Maryland without Adams and knocked off Syracuse with him for their first win in the Carrier Dome. Maryland was 8-10 in the Big 10 while Syracuse was 8-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Both won 19 games overall.

Bona's other nonconference games look better than they did two years ago. They lost by a bucket to Niagara early in the season while Adams was sidelined, a defeat that looks less damning after the Purple Eagles posted 19 wins. Bona beat Buffalo (23-8), which finished atop the Mid-American Conference, and Canisius, which was 21-11.

The Bonnies' four conference losses came on the road. Their biggest win came against Rhode Island, which was ranked 16th at the time and riding a 16-game winning streak. St. Bonaventure enters the A-10 tourney with the nation's longest current winning streak. Michigan State had won 13 straight before losing Saturday.

"We want to put everything in our own hands and control our own destiny," Adams said "We don't want to slip up and lose games that might derail us or give them the opportunities to be like, 'The Bonnies don't deserve a chance.' We need to win games. Hopefully, we win all the way till Sunday and make it a guarantee."

Every year for the past decade, the Atlantic 10 has had at least three teams play in the NCAAs. The conference sent six teams in 2014 and five a year earlier. Two years ago, Dayton and VCU were invited after sharing the conference title with Bona and reaching the A-10 tourney semifinals. Both lost to eventual winner Saint Joseph's.

Some speculated earlier in the season that only two A-10 teams would be invited to the NCAAs. It depends on which two teams. If the conference tourney goes according to plan – and that's a big if in the A-10 – Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure would meet in the final and could be the only teams to reach the NCAAs.

Rhode Island, ranked 25th in the nation in the AP poll, is likely a lock despite finishing the regular season with three losses in its final five games. St. Bonaventure, ranked 26th, likely would be a lock by winning Friday and reaching the semifinals. But a loss Friday would allow others to determine their fate as they did two years ago.

"It’s so competitive and changes so quickly that you just have to make sure you're concerned about yourself," Schmidt said. "We control what we can control. If we go and win three games, it doesn't matter what anybody else does. If we do what we're supposed to do, we'll be fine. We don't need any help."

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