St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt knows what it’ll take for the Bonnies to advance to the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season.
There will be no at-large bid, as there was a year ago.
The path forward is clear.
“The only way we are going to reach our ultimate goal, to get to the NCAA Tournament, is to win the conference tournament,” Schmidt said. “That’s the only way. Our record isn’t good enough. And it’s easier to win three games than to win four games. So that’s the simple math.”
Schmidt was speaking after St. Bonaventure (16-15) defeated Saint Louis, 66-57, in the regular season finale on March 9, after the surging Bonnies had won seven of their last eight games to finish in fourth place in the Atlantic 10 standings and earn a double-bye in the conference tournament.
That was the first step to salvaging a season that began with 10 losses in their first 14 games.
It figures that the next is a quarterfinal matchup against George Mason.
Fourth-seeded St. Bonaventure (16-15) will face fifth-seeded George Mason (18-14) at 2:30 p.m. Friday (NBCSN) at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, after Mason defeated George Washington, 61-57, in a second-round game Thursday.
The Patriots were Bona’s opponent at both the season’s nadir and for an historic victory, there for the lowest of lows and the highest of highs.
The teams split the regular season series, with Mason dumping Bona, 68-53, on Jan. 6 in the conference opener in Fairfax, Va., dropping the Bonnies to a season-worst 4-10 record.
“When we started out 4-10, it would have been easy for us to just lay down,” Bonnies senior Courtney Stockard said. “But we stuck with it, believed in ourselves, blocked out the noise and we got it done.”
St. Bonaventure, in turn, thumped the Patriots, 79-56, on Feb. 17 at the Reilly Center, giving Schmidt his 203rd career victory at the school, allowing him to surpass Larry Weise to become the program’s all-time wins leader.
The Bonnies raced to a 16-0 lead to begin the rematch, the team’s second victory in what became a seasonlong six-game winning streak.
But it was their first game that provided a springboard for what was to come.
Bona’s loss at George Mason marked the first time this season that all 11 of the Bonnies’ scholarship players were available to play. They have missed a combined 41 games because of injuries, forcing Schmidt to use nine different starting lineups.
LaDarien Griffin and Melkisedek Moreaux each missed 10 games, Dominick Welch missed nine, Stockard missed six, Jalen Poyser missed four and Nelson Kaputo missed two.
“We didn’t have any continuity. We didn’t have any chemistry,” Schmidt said. “We couldn’t practice the way we wanted to practice. We had eight guys and had to play four on four. It just wasn’t good. I knew that if we got healthy, we’d have a shot, but you have to keep your guys believing that there’s a shot.”
Stockard, who was named to the all-conference first team, missed the first six games of the season as he continued rehabbing from an offseason knee surgery.
Griffin was out from Nov. 8 until Dec. 21 because of a sprained knee.
The two seniors hugged each other on the court after the regular season finale against Saint Louis.
“That’s my bro,” Griffin said. “We’ve been through a lot together on and off the court.”
Bona had lost three starters from last year’s NCAA tournament team, which posted a 26-8 overall record and defeated UCLA for its first NCAA tournament victory since 1970.
But it wouldn’t have happened without a reprieve from the selection committee, which extended Bona an at-large bid based on its body of work, after the Bonnies had been knocked out of the A-10 tournament.
Second-seeded St. Bonaventure defeated No. 7 Richmond, 83-77, in the quarterfinals, but were bounced by No. 3 Davidson, 83-70, in the semifinals. Stockard missed the game after straining his right hamstring against the Spiders.
“What I learned last year is just how hard it is to win in the conference tournament,” Griffin said, “because now everybody has an even playing field, everybody’s well-rested, and now it’s just whoever can get the hottest and win three games, four games.”
Stockard said his big takeaway from the experience was an emphasis on paying attention to details.
“Going into every game focused and being prepared,” Stockard said, “and I think as long as I’ve been here, we’ve done a pretty good job of preparing for whatever opponent we came up against, and I think that’s what’s helped us with all the success that we’ve had.”
As for how he’d work to deliver that message to the team’s starting freshmen, point guard Kyle Lofton and center Osun Ossunniyi?
“Just steady harping on it … putting that bug in their ears and just trying to lead by example, trying to rub off on them,” Stockard said.
Davidson went on to stun No. 1 Rhode Island, 58-57, for the 2018 A-10 tournament title and automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
St. Bonaventure received an 11 seed, and after defeating UCLA, 65-58, in the First Four was ousted by sixth-seeded Florida in the first round.
It was the seventh NCAA Tournament appearance in program history and the second under Schmidt.
The first was in 2012, the last time the Bonnies won the conference tournament.
“It’s a one-game season,” Schmidt said. “You’ve got to play well. If you don’t play well, last year we lost to Davidson, Courtney got hurt in the game before and we didn’t have him, but those things happen, and that’s why it’s so difficult to win the tournament. You’ve got to be playing well for three or four straight nights and you have to stay healthy, and that’s hard.”