photo courtesy of Atlantic 10 conference
By Jeff Uveino
BLOOMINGTON, IN — Offense comes and goes. Defense is the staple.
That’s been the identity of the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team this season. While the Bonnies and head coach Mark Schmidt haven’t produced flashy offensive numbers, they’ve allowed 60.4 points per game en route to a 16-4 record.
That number makes the Bonnies the fifth-best scoring defense in the country. On Saturday against LSU, they’ll need it.
After receiving a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament, SBU drew eighth-seeded LSU (18-9) in the tournament’s first round. The Tigers, which are coming off of a one-point loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) title game, boast the nation’s eighth-best scoring offense.
The Bonnies have frustrated, bullied and stymied many of the Atlantic 10’s best offense players this season. Head coach Will Wade’s Tigers, and their multiple NBA prospects, however, will be Schmidt and SBU’s biggest test to date.
“If the (scoring) is in the 80s on Saturday, we’re probably not going to win,” Schmidt said. “We’ve got to somehow control the tempo and keep those guys out of the paint.”
LSU scores 82.1 points per game and features three players that each average over 15. Freshman guard Cameron Thomas, a projected first-round NBA Draft pick, averages a team-best 22.6 points per game. He leads a potent group of guards that spread the ball in Wade’s “five-out” offense, giving all five players on the floor the ability to shoot the 3-point shot.
“It’s almost like an NBA-type of style of play,” Schmidt said. “(We will) try to get back in transition and force them into the five-on-five game as much as we can. You can’t be one-on-one. If they isolate us, they’re probably better than us one-on-one.”
Joining Thomas in LSU’s backcourt is Javonte Smart, a junior that averages 15.9 points per game and shoots the 3-ball at a team-best 42% clip. Darius Days, a 6-7 junior forward, shoots nearly 40% from distance and averages 11.7 points per game.
If that weren’t enough, sophomore forward Trendon Watford averages 16.7 points per game. The Tigers’ desire to spread the ball out and run isolated offensive plays hinders their ability to feature a true under-the-basket presence, but Watford’s skill set allows him to play that role when needed.
“Keeping the ball above the foul line, being able to guard your yard, keeping the guys in front of you, is going to be very important,” Schmidt said. “They play a five-out offense, a lot of dribble-drives and isolations, so it’s really important for us to be able to guard them one-on-one. But, at the same time, get guys in the gaps and really try to force contested jump-shots.”
Slowing down LSU’s offense will be a team effort for Bona, which has only allowed more than 70 points twice this season. One of those instances came in SBU’s season opener against Akron, while the other came against A-10 foe La Salle. Both were double-digit Bona victories.
“We’ve got to play great team defense, and we need to rebound the basketball and keep them to one shot,” Schmidt said. “It’s the Southeast Conference. They’ve got SEC athletes, high-major guys, but it’s a challenge that we’re looking forward to.”
Osun Osunniyi, the A-10 defensive player of the year, has anchored SBU’s defense all season. The junior forward/center has seemed to continually improve on the defensive end as the season has gone on, however, culminating with a 13-block A-10 tournament that contributed to him being named Most Outstanding Player.
While Schmidt will rely on his guards to limit the Tigers on the perimeter, Osunniyi’s rim-protecting capability will be key.
“Where we’re at, a lot has to do with (Osunniyi) on the defensive end blocking shots,” Schmidt said. “That’s going to be a critical thing against LSU, but at the same time, LSU is going to try to pull him away from the basket.”
Another point of concern for Bona fans is LSU’s size, as Thomas’ 6-4 frame is the smallest in the Tigers’ starting lineup. Schmidt, however, feels that the Bonnies have enough size to match-up.
“It’s not like we’re going in there with 5-8 guards going up against 6-4; we match up in terms of size,” Schmidt said. “That’s not a concern; it’s the athleticism. Like I said, they’ve got two first-round picks.”
Bona junior guard Kyle Lofton pointed to LSU’s size, length and speed as points of interest in Bona’s defensive planning. A key to SBU’s defensive success has been limiting opposing star players, or as Schmidt and his players say, the “knowns.” LSU features more “knowns” than the Bonnies are used to seeing in the A-10.
“Usually, it’s one known or two knowns, but I feel like they have four knowns,” Lofton said. “It’s a good test for us to see where we’re at, and we’ve just got to be ready to come out and play.”
While Bona prides itself on winning games on the defensive end, Lofton was quick to mention the team’s offensive potential. The Bonnies score an average of 70.5 points per game, with each starter averaging in double digits.
“Obviously, the goal is to keep it a low-scoring game and grind it out on defense, but I feel like we have five players that can have a big game on any given night,” Lofton said. “The scoring, sometimes it’s not there, but I feel like in moments like this, good players shine, and we have good players.”
Bona’s starters have taken turns filling the offensive spotlight this season.
Lofton did so in the team’s A-10 championship victory over VCU with a game-high 23 points. Before that, juniors Jalen Adaway and Jaren Holmes combined for 32 points in SBU’s semifinal win over Saint Louis, and Osunniyi and junior guard Dominick Welch each scored 18 points against Duquesne in the quarterfinals.
Lofton leads the unselfish group with 14.6 points per game. Schmidt said that it could be Osunniyi, however, that keys his offense against the Tigers.
“We’ll try to go inside with (Osunniyi) and try to get him going to the basket on some screen-and-rolls and stuff. But like I said, when (Osunniyi) is scoring the ball inside for us, we’re a better team.
Schmidt added that the Bonnies would likely run their offense from the inside-out, whether it be via the pass or the dribble.
“When we’re open, we’ve got to make some (3-pointers),” Schmidt said. “There are a lot of things that are going to be important. Transition defense, rebounding the ball, keeping them to one shot, staying out of foul trouble.”
Regardless of what Schmidt and his assistants draw up to defend and attack LSU, Lofton said that the players’ mindset ahead of the game remains the same that it’s been all season: trust the coaches’ game-plan.
“That’s why we have great coaches,” Lofton said. “The coaches will handle that well, and we’ve just got to follow the game-plan and come ready to play.”
The Bonnies and Tigers are scheduled to tip-off from Indiana University’s Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall at 1:45 p.m. on Saturday, and the game will be broadcasted nationally on TNT. The Tigers were 1.5-point favorites as of Friday.
“Like I said, good players live up to these moments,” Lofton said. “You don’t shy away from these moments, and they have a lot of great players, so you know a lot of people will be watching this game. I just want to get St. Bonaventure’s name even more on the map.”