By Chuckie Maggio, @ChuckieMaggio
The ninth-seeded St. Bonaventure Bonnies head to Brooklyn, N.Y. to start their Atlantic 10 Tournament campaign on Thursday at noon against the eight-seeded La Salle Explorers at the Barclays Center. The winner of the matchup will face the St. Louis Billikens, the number one seed, on Friday at noon in the quarterfinals. The game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network.
First thing’s first, however: the Bonnies and Explorers will have to play their best just to get to the game against SLU. They’ve been familiar foes this year, facing off twice. Bonaventure ran away with the first game, winning 66-51 in front of a packed and rowdy Reilly Center, while La Salle won the second game in their house in a tight 75-67 game that came down to the final moments.
Now, on a neutral court, these two evenly matched teams will be ready to play what should be one of the best games of the opening round. It will be an intense battle full of emotion, with neither team willing to leave Brooklyn after just one game. Who will pull off the win? Let’s break it down!
St. Bonaventure: Mark Schmidt. 104-109 as Bonnies coach, with one Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship (2012).
LaSalle: Dr. John Giannini. 158-153 as Explorers coach, 455-302 overall (25th season).
Key Players for La Salle:
Tyreek Duren- 6-0 senior guard
Duren is definitely one of the players the Bonnies will focus on during Thursday’s game. A second team All-Conference selection, he leads the Explorers in scoring with 15.2 points per game while shooting 41.3 percent from the field. He also plays big against Bonaventure, as evidenced by his 17 points in the two previous meetings with the Bonnies this year. In the surprising win over St. Joe’s last Saturday, he scored 27 points on 5-12 shooting from the floor and a 16-17 performance from the free-throw line.
Simply put, he’s a dynamite scorer who is rarely shut down. When a team defends him well, however, like Villanova did, he can become a non-factor in a losing effort. Bonnies guard Charlon Kloof’s defensive effort on Duren will need to be huge.
Tyrone Garland- 6-1 senior guard
Known for his long dreadlocks and his “Southwest Philly Floater” to beat Ole Miss and put the Explorers in last year’s Sweet Sixteen, Garland has some serious game. Along with his 13 points per game, he’s improved his passing and rebounding this season, improving in both statistical categories. He hasn’t done anything too incredible against the Bonnies this year, but Explorers fans haven’t forgotten his 30-point output in the double overtime thriller against VCU in January (neither has Shaka Smart).
Garland simply has to be contained if the Bonnies are going to win this game. They cannot afford to have both guards go off and have exceptional days from the field.
Jerrell Wright- 6-8 junior forward
One of the main differences between La Salle’s loss to St. Bonaventure and their victory later in the season was Jerrell Wright’s production. In the loss, he only managed five points on 1-4 shooting, well below his season average of 12.9 points per game. In the win, he bounced back for 18 points on 8-12 shooting, playing an extremely efficient game and becoming a major factor. Which Jerrell Wright will show up against the Bonnies on Thursday?
Keys to victory:
St. Bonaventure: The Bonnies need to win the turnover battle and play strong perimeter defense to survive and advance. A strength of the team in the January win was that they forced 17 La Salle turnovers. If they can have the same type of pressure and force the Explorers to make mistakes on Thursday while limiting turnovers of their own, that’s a huge edge.
The perimeter defense needs to tighten up as well. In the Bonaventure win the first time these two teams met, they held the Explorers to just 3-17 shooting from three-point land. In the La Salle win the second meeting, the Explorers were 7-13, 53.8 percent from downtown. Closing out on those shooters is going to be vital if the Bonnies hope to sustain leads and win this ballgame.
La Salle: La Salle needs to win the rebounding battle to win this game. They lost that category both times they faced the Bonnies this season, and as we know, in the A-10 the team that gets outrebounded usually loses the game. Explorers center Steve Zack will face the tall task of boxing out 7’0” Bonnies center Youssou Ndoye, but it’s a challenge he’s been adept at facing so far.
78-73 Bonnies. 8/9 games are always entertaining toss-ups, and this one will be no exception. The Bonnies just seem more physically and mentally tough than this La Salle team, and that will wear out the Explorers in the end. Matthew Wright will be on the mark from three-point range, Dion Wright will have a nice performance off the bench and St. Bonaventure will live to play another day.
Other first round predictions:
Dayton over Fordham, Duquesne over Richmond, UMass over Rhode Island