[Image courtesy of bringinthepacl.com]
By Ryan Lazo, Editor in Chief, @RMLazo13
Rewind to March 11, 2012 and St. Bonaventure University fans and alumni immediately picture the previously unimaginable — the Bonnies jumping up and down in jubilation after earning the program’s first Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship.
The victory sent Bona into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for the first time since 2000, a 12-year gap made even worse by a devastating scandal, and brought added attention to the smallest university in the country to send both its men’s and women’s basketball teams to the tournament.
However, instead of capitalizing on its recent success and the added attention of having a No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, Bona coach Mark Schmidt and his staff oversaw a Fall recruiting period that came and went with no National Letter of Intents entering their hands. In fact, St. Bonaventure was the only Atlantic 10 member to not have a recruit signed during the Fall period.
Now turn to the present and Bona fans can sing a different tune as Schmidt wrapped up the Spring signing period by inking five players, three freshmen and two Junior College transfers. Xavier Smith, Chris Dees, Denzel Gregg, Andell Cumberbatch and Jalen Adams all add up to the most talented class, on paper, Schmidt and his staff have compiled in his six plus years at the helm.
Assistant head coach Steve Curran said it comes down to using all the resources available to them in order to decipher which players can help the program win.
“We go to a ton of exposure camps in the summer where all the best players are and we formulate a list,” Curran said. “A lot of it is contacts we’ve made over the years, phone calls and going out in the field.”
And one of the key contacts during this recent signing period was former Bona player, Tyler Relph who runs a basketball camp in Dallas, TX. Relph played two years at St. Bonaventure, experiencing his best season in Schmidt’s first year as coach, scoring 11.9 points per game.
It was Relph who spoke to Smith, a 6-foot-7 forward with four years of eligibility, about St. Bonaventure and discussed with him the possibility of getting into contact with the coaching staff.
“He told me about his experience at St. Bonaventure and that he didn’t regret a single second of it,” Smith said. “He also talked about the basketball program and the support it received. What he said influenced me a lot on my decision.”
And the decision-making process for Smith became hectic in the latter stages as the East Plano, TX native received offers from schools in the Big 12, but an official visit to campus sealed the deal.
“When I first arrived on campus, the coaches said they would love to have me at St. Bonaventure,” Smith said. “I immediately felt comfortable and welcomed at the school.”
However, while Bona immediately makes a list of players they are interested in because of their talent ability, positional needs always take first priority. With Bona graduating four players — a point guard, small forward, power forward and shooting guard — the staff aimed to get athletic.
Not only did they look for guys who can make an immediate impact, but dug deeper to find players who fit the program and can develop into an even greater force over four years.
“You’re definitely looking at need and the fit into the program,” Curran explained. “We’re looking for a kid who is going to fit into what we are trying to do. We run a lot of specific sets so we need someone with a high basketball IQ.”
With numerous set plays and a lot of four-out offensive sets, Bona needs players who can not only play in the paint, but go off-the-bounce with an outside touch. Curran recognized that Gregg could be that type of player and kept an eye on his possible de-commitment from Fordham based on a tip.
Once Gregg decommitted, Schmidt put on his own version of the full-court press, showing Gregg how vital a piece he could be to the program. It was the coaching staff’s commitment which made it an easy choice for Gregg.
“I already had a great relationship with Coach Curran and Coach Schmidt before my visit,” Gregg said. “Going to campus was really the last step for me in the process. I loved the program, heard good things about it, and I loved the school a lot.”
It’s a refreshing change of pace for a coaching staff that has dealt with criticisms, some warranted, for the inability to seal the deal with recruits during their tenure. That’s not to mention the famed de-commitments that shook the program and hurt the product on the court.
But the tide is quickly turning. Recruits are now discussing the staff’s accomplishments in developing players, their style of play and the level of interest shown to each one of them.
How else to explain Schmidt and his staff nabbing the 6-foot-7 Gregg and Smith, who averaged 12 points, six rebounds and 6.9 points and 7.6 rebounds respectively, and received numerous other offers?
How else to explain that after losing 59 percent of their scoring output from last season, Schmidt landed JUCO guard Cumberbatch to help stretch defenses with his 38 percent 3-point shooting and 50 percent shooting overall?
“Player development with this coaching staff has been really good,” Gregg said. “Look at Nicholson. He didn’t have a lot of D-I offers and they turned him into an NBA star. So I just feel that their development as a whole is great.”
And while no one is announcing there to be another NBA star among the ranks of incoming players, the coaching staff’s track record is unquestioned.
After numerous seasons of not filling positional needs, nor signing players during the regular signing period, Schmidt and his staff came up aces during Finals week. The signings of five talented and athletic players, each of which have the ability to make an immediate impact, displays hope for the near future.
“I want Bonnie fans to know that I won’t let y’all down,” Smith said.
“I want to win and become a better player by working as hard as I can,” Gregg added.
With talented and committed players in the fold, St. Bonaventure’s future no longer looks as dark and dreary as the Olean, N.Y. Winter, but bright enough to shine a light directly on the A-10 Championship banner as the staff attempts to build a team capable of duplicating the feat.