Sullivan: After years of proving everyone wrong, ranked Bonnies out to prove the voters right

Jerry Sullivan

St. Bonaventure’s Jaren Holmes, left, and Kyle Lofton celebrate after beating VCU in an NCAA college basketball championship game for the Atlantic Ten Conference tournament Sunday, March 14, 2021, in Dayton, Ohio. St. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

There were people who told Mark Schmidt he was crazy when he took the head job at St. Bonaventure in 2007. Four years after a major recruiting scandal, skeptics said it was a basketball graveyard, a place he could never win. It would be professional suicide.

Schmidt took the job anyway. He knew there was a winning tradition in Olean. He believed he could bring it back, and he set out to silence the doubters.

“We used to be the team that had a chip on our shoulder, that went out and tried to prove people wrong,” Schmidt said recently. “We still have that chip. Now, we want to prove people right.”

Yes, the program that couldn’t win, the hoop graveyard that was too remote to attract top players in modern college basketball, is ranked. Yes, nationally ranked. On Tuesday night, the Bonnies open their 2021-22 season at the Reilly Center ranked 23rd by AP. In the coaches’ poll, they’re 24th.

It’s the first time Bona has appeared in the national poll in half a century. The last time was in January of 1971, the year after Bob Lanier took the Bonnies to the Final Four. It was a different sport then. Fordham and LaSalle, two of the worst programs in today’s Atlantic-10, were also ranked at the time.

Bona won the A-10 regular season and conference tournament titles last season for the first time. They won double-digit games in the conference for the seventh year in a row. Still, questions persist about their worthiness as a ranked team at a time when the power conferences dominate college basketball and fewer so-called mid-majors penetrate the upper levels of the sport.

St. Bonaventure head coach Mark Schmidt calls out to his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Rhode Island in semifinal round of the Atlantic 10 men’s tournament Saturday, March 16, 2019, in New York. St. Bonaventure won 68-51. (AP Photo)

“It’s the same mentality,” Schmidt said. “People are still doubting us, at least whether the ranking is legitimate. I think our guys have a little chip on their shoulder. They understand that what we did last year is going to be hard to duplicate. But that’s their goal, to try to duplicate it and get to the NCAA Tournament and play a little better than we did against LSU.”

Ah yes, The LSU game. Last season, the Bonnies were a ninth seed in the NCAAs. It was the second-highest seed ever for a Big 4 team (UB was a sixth seed in 2019). They were a chic choice to knock off LSU in an 8-9 first-round game in Bloomington, Ind.

But LSU, a team from the mighty SEC, hammered the Bonnies, 76-61, in an unsightly contest. Bona scored four points in the first 8:30 (and trailed by only 6-4). They shot just 33 percent for the game, making only three of 20 three-pointers. Their top scorer, Kyle Lofton, shot 3-for-18 from the floor.

“The loss against LSU has driven the kids in the offseason and helped motivate them,” Schmidt said, “because they weren’t happy with how we played. All of them wanted to get to the NCAA Tournament and they accomplished that.

“It’s like, they were happy to be there. Now it’s, ‘Can we get back? And if we do, let’s try to get better and advance.’ That’s the long-range goal. But that’s a long way off. We’re concerned about Siena.”

St. Bonaventure guard Kyle Lofton (0) drives the ball into a LSU defender during the first half of a first round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 20, 2021, at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

There are skeptics, to be sure. There’s also a recognition that the Bonnies return five starters from last year’s squad, three who have been starting together since they lost in A-10 tourney final as freshman: Lofton, the 6-3 guard and top scorer, who was third in the nation in minutes played; 6-5 guard Dominick Welch of Cheektowaga, one of the top three-point shooters in the country; and 6-10 Osun Osunniyi, who led the A-10 in blocks, the main reason the Bonnies were sixth in the country in field-goal defense.

The other returning starters are seniors Jaren Holmes and Jalen Adaway, who were second and third in scoring behind Lofton a year ago.

Having a veteran lineup guarantees nothing, especially when every college player was granted an extra season due to the pandemic last year. But Schmidt expects all that experience to help his team navigate the lofty expectations.

“Yes, that’s the goal, the thing we’ve been harping on,” said Schmidt, who is 242-185 in 14 seasons at Bona and has led them to eight straight winning seasons. “I’m lucky we have five seniors who are mature and understand what it takes to be successful, that it can’t be an ‘I’ or ‘me’ thing. Last year, no one cared who got the credit. They all played their roles.

“Those five seniors, they won’t get caught up in all the hoopla of the rankings or the rings in the Atlantic 10,” he said. “They understand that this year is going to be harder than last year because of the target we have on our chest.”

It will help to be deeper than a year ago, when the Bonnies got an inordinate amount of their production from the five starters. They added an impact transfer in Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, a 6-9 sophomore forward who played last year at Pittsburgh. Two freshmen guards, Joryam Saizonou and Justin Ndjock-Tadjore, are expected to add depth to Schmidt’s rotation.

Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, a transfer from Pitt, brings a 6-foot-9 presence to the Bonnies’ inside game. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Lofton won’t likely be asked to play 38.2 minutes a game this season. Schmidt likes to say his guys are young, so they don’t get tired. But he concedes that the heavy load might have worn his guys down some last season.

“There’s some fatigue that goes on,” Schmidt said. “The hope is we can give them a little bit of rest during the season, so they’ll be strong as the season goes along.”

One thing about Schmidt’s players is that they get better as the season goes along, and during their careers. He doesn’t get the blue chippers to Olean, but he finds the sort of players who are smart and dedicated enough to take advantage of the experience at a small, basketball-mad university.

“A lot of people say you can’t recruit here because of where we’re located,” Schmidt said. “We use that to our advantage. Sometimes, it really reduces the number of kids we can recruit. But it’s a positive in that we’re getting that type of kid who can be successful here.”

“I tell kids all the time, if you’re looking for a place where they have 25 nightclubs and the social life is off the charts, this isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for a place where you’re going to get a good education and you’re going to play basketball in one of the best arenas in the country in the Atlantic 10 and you’re going to have a chance to be a pro, this is a place you have to look at.”

The Reilly Center is renowned as one of the best mid-major venues in the country. Last year, there were no home crowds because of the pandemic. On Tuesday night, the Bonnies will play a home game before fans for the first time since March 4, 2020. Their fans are clearly wired to see their beloved, ranked Bonnies in person. There have been about 2,800 season tickets sold so far.

“Last year was bittersweet,” Schmidt said. “We had a great year, but the community and the students really couldn’t enjoy the Reilly Center. And even our players. But now, we’re back. Hopefully the place is gonna be rocking.

“Ohhh! It’s going to be electric. Electric.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending Now