Saturday, April 20

A-10 Tourney has become Bonnies’ to lose | Sports

WASHINGTON, DC — The headline splashed across the following day’s paper read, “Boardwalk Empire.” That’s what the Temple men’s basketball team, in its final stretch as the top dog in the Atlantic 10, had become.

Indeed, the Owls had just won their third-straight A-10 Tournament, spanning 2008-10, inside Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. They were the last team to repeat as tournament champions. And they were among those, over the last 20 years, that probably felt like their place in the title game was a birthright, that this event was theirs to lose.

Xavier and George Washington had periods of dominance before Temple’s three-peat. Richmond made back-to-back title game appearances in Chris Mooney’s early days. VCU, perhaps most notably, reached the final in five-straight years (from 2013-17), winning its only league crown in 2015.

And now, after decades in which only a once-in-a-blue-moon run seemed possible, the hometown team, St. Bonaventure, is of that ilk.

Bona has reached the championship contest the last two years there’s been one, leading by as many as 15 before falling to Saint Louis in 2019 while beating VCU for last year’s automatic bid. And it isn’t just that it’s been successful, it’s that, rather than one group of players passing the torch to another, it’s done it with largely the same guys.

With that group still intact, this has to be among the few, if not the first instance in which a team’s entire starting five is back the following year to defend its title. So, yes, Bona would have to be considered one of the favorites, even as the No. 4 seed. And yes, the Bonnies might feel as if this tournament belongs to them, and no one else.

And though they’re trying to remain grounded as they look to become the first program in over a decade to repeat — “It’s not like if we don’t win the A-10 Tournament the season is a disappointment or their career is a disappointment ,” coach Mark Schmidt said. “One game doesn’t make a season or career” — their goal is singular over these next three days at Capital One Arena:

To win it all. To give this season the ending they were always supposed to. And it starts with beating Saint Louis for a third time.

“That’s our mindset, is to go out and win the first one,” said Schmidt, whose team will meet the fifth-seeded Billikens in today’s quarterfinals (2:30 pm, WPIG-FM, USA Network-TV). “I think people get ahead of themselves. They say, ‘Coach, what are you gonna do Saturday. How are you gonna play them or that?’ It’s like, Saturday won’t come if you don’t take care of Friday.”

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And if there’s something tangible to win — this year’s inconsistencies notwithstanding — this group has often done just that.

Bona came within a missed Nelson Kaputo 3-pointer at the buzzer of beating the Billikens in that 2019 final. Since then, it won the two-day Boca Raton Beach Classic together as sophomores, both the A-10 regular season and tournament championships as juniors and, in its most impressive regular season accomplishment, the three-day Charleston Classic championship as seniors.

The Bonnies, ever since they were thrown into the metaphorical fire in that disastrous showing at the Cayman Islands in November 2018, which came just four games into their careers, have won nearly every multi-day, winner-take-all event in which they ‘ve participated. That’s something that would seemingly do plenty for their confidence heading into what will presumably be its own “last dance.”

There’s also this: Bona has reached the final the last two times it’s been the No. 4 seed — in 2012, the year it won its first crown with Andrew Nicholson, and in ’19.

“That’s why you play those tournaments like Charleston,” Schmidt said. “Our guys are used to that, understand how to prepare for it — both going into the tournament and then while you’re in the tournament — so that will help in terms of preparation.

In ’19, after a 4-10 start and with three freshmen starters, being in the championship game almost amounted to a “happy to be here” kind of moment. The Bonnies, of course, wanted to win and probably should have, but as expectations dipped throughout that year, so too did the pressure.

This year, we know, is different.

Aspirations, even with an at-large berth presumably off the table, are still as high as they’ve ever been. But so is Bona’s experience of her. And that’s what it hopes will make the difference this weekend.

“It’s much easier,” Schmidt said of having such a grizzled lineup for this final go-around. “Experience is such an important part of this game, when you have three games in three days like Charleston, you don’t have to go over as much. As freshmen, inexperienced, they don’t know, they’re green, you have so much more preparation. But with those five guys, you really don’t.

“They know exactly what they’re supposed to do. Any coach will say if you have five good, unselfish seniors, it makes your job that much easier. If you have five selfish seniors, then it would be horrendous, but those guys understand what’s at stake, and they’ll be prepared to play and hopefully we can play well.”

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