By Chuckie Maggio, @chuckiemaggio
It’s not exactly a secret that St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt isn’t the biggest fan of giving freshmen a great deal of playing time. After all, Andrew Nicholson was the only Bona frosh to get starter’s minutes in the Schmidt era, and he was ready for big minutes the second he got to Olean.
Class of 2017 recruits Denzel Gregg and Xavier Smith followed in the line of first-year players who had to watch and learn from the bench. Gregg, a 6-7 forward from Syracuse, N.Y., averaged eight minutes and two points a game. Smith, a 6-8 forward from Plano, Texas, averaged 3.5 minutes and 0.5 points a contest.
They didn’t always see the floor, but the duo had plenty of learning experiences. It’s always an adjustment going from high school to college ball, and the learning curve is steep.
“(The game’s) a lot more physical and a lot faster,” said Gregg. “You just have to put more time into it: watching more film, getting plays printed out by the coaches and studying them; it’s a lot more work than high school.”
“There are a lot more plays,” noted Smith. “You have to be a lot more prepared and focused. You have to listen to what the coaches are telling you because they’ve been here for multiple years and know how the game goes. If you do what they say, you’ll get there.”
Outside of practice and workouts on campus, the sophomores got some valuable experience over the summer to aid their improvement.
Smith and junior forward Dion Wright were invited to participate in six-game European goodwill tours in August. Smith played with players from big-time schools like Villanova, Kansas State, SMU and Santa Clara.
“(The trip) was really helpful for me,” Smith said. “By playing with those players, I was able to compare the level they were at to my own game, and we played against pros who actually got paid for playing.”
While most players stay at Bonaventure for the majority of the summer, Gregg took classes online and participated in a summer league back in Syracuse called King of Kings.
Gregg, who played for Utica Select, got the chance to compete against many former college and professional players; one of the most recognizable was former Syracuse standout Brandon Triche. Alumni of the league include NBA players Jimmer Fredette, Michael Carter-Williams and Kris Joseph.
“It was a learning experience, getting to play against pros and ex-Division I guys,” Gregg said. “It’s good to see where you stand and where you fit. It was fun to play against people who are going what you’re going through.”
The work Gregg and Smith put in this offseason is all part of their aspiration to make the “sophomore leap” this winter. Their roles will be expanded this season, with more minutes and more chances to help the Bonnies win games.
SBU saw a textbook example of a second-year player making the most of his opportunity last year with the aforementioned Dion Wright.
Wright played sparingly in his freshman year, averaging just six minutes of floor time a game with 2.8 points and 1.9 rebounds. However, his work ethic over the 2013 offseason paid off and he improved in every statistical category, playing just under 22 minutes a game and averaging 8.7 points and 4.8 boards. This year figures to be even better for number 21.
Gregg and Smith are definitely in position to make a similar leap in 2014-15, and they are ready for the challenge.
“It’s exciting,” Gregg said. “Nothing’s given to you, but if we continue to work hard we can both make a big jump from our freshman year. Roles are still being earned, so we’ll find out as time goes on.”
“We lost a lot of players so there are minutes on the table. We just have to work everyday to earn them,” said Smith. “As practice goes on, we’ll figure out the best role for each individual.”
The losses of Charlon Kloof, Matthew Wright and Marquise Simmons (48% of the team’s scoring last season) to graduation have led many prognosticators to doubt the Bonnies. SBU was predicted to finish 10th by a panel of Atlantic 10 media members and coaches.
Gregg downplayed the preseason predictions, accentuating the fact that the lack of respect paid to the team is nothing new.
“Last year they were talking about all the players we lost too; it’s something we’re used to,” he said. “All it means is that (we) have to step up to replace what we lost.”
Smith agreed with Gregg. “We got a lot of new players, but we lost a lot of players too. We have to find a way to replace them with our strengths,” he said.
The two sophomores, who have been roommates since they entered the school in the fall of 2013, have big goals for the season.
“Individually, I just want to get better and improve in every statistical category,” Gregg said. “(My) team goal is 20-plus wins.”
“Individually, I want to help out my team with whatever minutes I get,” Smith said. “(My) team goal is postseason play.”
If these two can do what Wright did in his second season, look for the Bonnies to make some major noise come March.