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Bucky Gleason: St. Bonaventure over UCLA in Big Dance would be great story, not tall tale

You'll rarely hear me say anything positive about the NCAA, which has shamelessly made billions of dollars off the backs of college kids and remained one of the more hypocritical and corrupt enterprises in sports. But I must admit we have one thing in common: An affinity for a great story.

It must have come into play Sunday evening while the Selection Committee huddled around a table and decided the pairings for the NCAA Tournament. March Madness was built on the David vs. Goliath theme, tapping into the idea people can't resist watching the underdog slay the giant.

The St. Bonaventure-UCLA game Tuesday in Dayton has the potential to kick off the tournament the way people have come to expect. The committee must have been salivating over a First Four game pitting a tiny, obscure school in the middle of nowhere against city slickers from Los Angeles that's rich in hoops tradition.

Nobody should be surprised if Bona coach Mark Schmidt smuggles a measuring tape into University of Dayton Arena to show his players the hoops are 10 feet above the floor, as they are in Pauley Pavilion, and reminds them that they belong on the same court with a power conference team that has won 18 national titles.

But it's not as if little old St. Bonaventure (25-7), which hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game since its illustrious run in 1970, needs a perfect game Tuesday. We're not talking N.C. State over Houston, circa 1983. Beating UCLA (21-11) would be like Bona beating Syracuse in December, hardly a monumental upset.

First Four preview: St. Bonaventure vs. UCLA

The Bruins are 3½-point favorites, which is nothing in a battle of No. 11 seeds. Of course Bona has a chance.

"You have to be a competitor," Schmidt said. "Every game, it's like you don't care who you're playing against or if you're playing out in the park. You don't care. You have to attack that guy. That's our mentality. We don't care who we're playing. These guys aren't going to be intimidated."

St. Bonaventure in recent years has attempted to distance itself from its reputation as some small school in the sticks. Its basketball team has won 20 or more games in three straight seasons and helped put Bona back on the map. But most would have a tough time finding the place even if they had a map.

It's all true, but that's part of the beauty in St. Bonaventure and its basketball program. Schmidt built his team with players who were overlooked or shoved to the side by larger programs in bigger conferences, and he developed a collection of misfit toys into one of the best teams in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

St. Bonaventure should embrace national perception and run with the myth that it has little chance against UCLA. That's when a team, this one in particular, becomes dangerous and can sneak up and sting an opponent. Let others believe Bona is little more than a mild inconvenience for UCLA.

"It's UCLA," senior guard Matt Mobley said. "Nobody thinks we're going to win. We're just going out and play. Everybody on this team has been overlooked their whole lives. Now that the opportunity is here, we might as well take advantage. We're excited to play a national powerhouse like UCLA."

5 things about the UCLA Bruins, St. Bonaventure's NCAA Tournament opponent

UCLA coach Steve Alford knows better than to ignore any team come tournament time. He grew up in New Castle, Ind., about the size of Olean, and won the 1987 national championship with Indiana under Bobby Knight. The former point guard built a career around smart, fundamental basketball.

See: St. Bonaventure.

"I've known Coach Schmidt a long time," Alford told reporters in Los Angeles. "He's been there for a while, so he's done a very good job of building his program. I did see where they've beaten Maryland, and they beat Syracuse and finished second in that league. We know we're going to have our hands full."

Schmidt and his assistants have done a fantastic job in finding high-school castoffs, identifying their maximum potential and grooming them into solid players. The Bonnies aren't blessed with size and talent, but they have proven to be a darned good team that would challenge most teams in the Big Dance.

Jaylen Adams, an elite player in the conference who could have played for any team in the country, was recruited by one school, Jacksonville, before the coach was fired. Schmidt convinced him to play for Bona. Mobley, a deadly shooter, played two years at Central Connecticut before transferring to Bona.

Adams is averaging 19.8 points and 5.4 assists while Mobley is averaging 18.5 points and five rebounds going into the NCAAs. Both have scored 30-plus points in a game three times this year, including Adams going for 40-plus twice. Both or either can bury a team if they're given time and space.

"It's definitely fitting," Adams said of the matchup. "We've been underdogs our whole lives. It's just another test for us. Every time we're riding high, it seems like someone kicks us. It's one of those things that keeps a chip on our shoulder and keeps us humble."

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

St. Bonaventure hopes to have small forward Courtney Stockard back after he suffered a hamstring injury in the A-10 tourney. He scored 26.1 points per game over four contests to lead the Bonnies before he left the game last Friday. He sat out two years with a broken foot before emerging this year.

Schmidt's latest project is Amadi Ikpeze, a 6-foot-10 center from Amherst High who improved dramatically in two years at Bona. He gives the Bonnies a big body in the paint and added scoring punch inside in recent weeks while opposing teams focused their attention on taking away Adams and Mobley.

LaDarien Griffin, among the most improved players in the A-10 conference, showed his ability to get to the basket. The 6-7 forward played high school ball with Duke star Grayson Allen but apparently didn't impress enough scouts who showed up to watch Allen. But he works just fine for St. Bonaventure.

We're talking about taking down UCLA, after all, not UMass.

What They Said: Bonnies' Mark Schmidt, Jaylen Adams, Matt Mobley, Idris Taqqee

The Bruins were among the top teams in the country last season. Aaron Holiday is one of the best guards. He does for UCLA what Adams does for Bonaventure. Thomas Welsh is a 7-footer who dominates the backboard, can shoot from the perimeter and is very good from the free-throw line.

UCLA has experience in big games against better opponents, but there's a reason they were shoved into the First Four. The Bruins twice lost to Colorado that finished two games over .500 and fell to an Oregon State team that was 16-16 overall and 10th in the Pac-12. UCLA was well behind Bona in RPI.

Many who remember the 1970 tournament, including retired Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, still believe Bona would have won the national championship – and not UCLA – if Bob Lanier didn't suffer a knee injury in the regional final. Forty-eight years later, the Bonnies would love to settle an old score.

It would make a heck of a story.

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