(Photo Credit: GoBonnies.com)
By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio
The early part of the 2016-17 St. Bonaventure men’s basketball Atlantic 10 schedule is starting to look very similar to year’s past.
Bona’s conference opener in two of the last three seasons was a date at UMass; the Bonnies prevailed over the Minutemen by double digits in both. In two of the last three years, the next game was a dubious league home opener, a double-digit defeat at the hands of the Dayton Flyers in a tame, virtually student-free environment.
On Jan. 6 of last season, SBU played at George Mason in what was only the second game of the league slate. On Saturday, Jan. 7 at 5 p.m., it will host the Patriots in the third.
In 2016, the Bonnies blew Mason out by 19 points to earn their 10th overall win. The only question at the end of the game was where forward Denzel Gregg’s no-look reverse dunk would land on that night’s Sportscenter Top 10 countdown (it placed sixth in a big night for highlights across college basketball and the NBA).
If Bonaventure grabs another victory against GMU this time around, it will once again record its 10th victory. However, this matchup figures to be tougher than the one in Fairfax, Va. 367 days ago.
The Patriots had six wins to their name the last time the teams met, and ended 2015-16 with just 11. They’ve already won 11 of their 15 games this season.
When Mason fired coach Paul Hewitt after the 2014-15 season, Dave Paulsen was a smart choice to replace him. Paulsen won four Patriot League regular season titles and made two NCAA Tournament appearances at Bucknell.
Despite the 52-year-old’s success at his first coaching stop, not many foresaw the green and gold’s return to respectability occurring this early in his tenure. And while the Patriots’ victories include Division III Lebanon Valley and two sub-300 teams in the KenPom rankings, they do have a win over Penn St., which is No. 93 on KenPom, higher than any opponent Bona has defeated.
The in-state battle with perennial powerhouse VCU wasn’t the dusting it used to be, either; Mason trailed by a point at the half and was down five with 3:42 to play before eventually falling by nine.
Josh Ayeni and LaDarien Griffin are the only two underclassmen who have started in Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt’s lineup this season. Six underclassmen have made at least one start for Mason, including 5-foot-11 sophomore Otis Livingston II, whose 15.1 points per game are good for second on the team. Livingston II also leads the team with 1.5 steals a contest and is tied for the lead in assists, averaging 3.5.
The Patriot Livingston II is trailing in scoring and tied with in assists is 6-foot-2 senior guard Marquise Moore, who has been doing it all for Paulsen’s squad this season.
Moore, a prep school teammate of Gregg at St. Thomas More in Connecticut, is tied with Duke forward Amile Jefferson for 15th in the nation in rebounds per game with 10.6. The Queens, N.Y. native has the second-highest rebounding average of a listed guard in the country behind Memphis sophomore Dedric Lawson, who stands at 6-foot-9. He has 159 total boards through the first 15 games; the next-highest teammate has 88.
“(Moore)’s strong, he’s physical, he’s got a great passion for the game,” Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt said. “He can get into the lane, he’s got a great pull-up game. They run a lot of ball screens for him. He’s just really talented and he’s playing with a lot of confidence and getting to the foul line seven or eight times a game. He’s having a senior year. He’s worked hard and he deserves all the accolades. He’s playing extremely hard.”
With a guard as skilled on the glass as Moore, it’s no surprise that the Patriots have the best rebounding margin in the conference, at plus-eight. The Bonnies are fourth, at plus-three.
The burning question for Bona fans, however, isn’t about rebounding; it’s about how well the opposition shoots the three. No team has made fewer shots a game from behind the arc than the Patriots (5.5), and they are in the middle of the pack in terms of percentage with a 33.1 percent clip, eighth in the A-10.
Mason may not be known for draining perimeter jumpers, but it did go 9-of-20 from deep in an 86-81 win against UMass. Livingston and sophomore Jaire Grayer each hit three triples, while freshman Ian Boyd made two. Jalen Jenkins, a 6-foot-7 redshirt senior from Brooklyn, isn’t a three-point shooter, but was still an efficient 7-of-14 from the field against the Minutemen. The Bonnies know they still have to show improvement and be ready to defend shots from all three levels: close, mid-range and deep.
“They have good shooters,” Schmidt remarked. “Livingston’s a really good shooter, their freshmen can shoot the ball. They’re a little bit streaky, but you still have to make sure you get to the three-point shooters. Maybe there’s not as many as other teams have, but they have capable shooters. If you’re not out there, you allow dribble penetration, those guys can shoot it on you.”
The Patriots haven’t been able to defeat the Bonnies since becoming an Atlantic 10 member in 2013-14; in fact, each of the three games has been of the double-digit variety. Despite the recent history, neither side can deny that the teams are different and GMU is more competitive on paper than it has been.
“They definitely have improved as a team,” Bona junior Idris Taqqee said. “I know that they went on a long win streak and for us, to just take care of what we’ve gotta do and just prepare, is all we can do.”