ST. BONAVENTURE — The earliest such event that I can recall took place 25 years ago outside of the continental United States.
During Thanksgiving week 1994, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team opened the season with a two-day tournament in Honolulu. And though it lost both games, including a matchup with host Hawaii, the inauspicious start was far from indicative of the kind of year it would be for Bona, which ultimately advanced to its first postseason in 12 years.
In the time since, Bona has been a part of numerous in-season tournaments and “challenges,” some prestigious, others obscure; some near, others far.
They played in the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico in 1998. They “won” the Garden State Challenge in 2008, which served as one of the original turning points for the program under Mark Schmidt. They knocked off Maryland on a last-second basket from Courtney Stockard in the Emerald Coast Classic two years ago.
The one that remains most vivid, however — for whatever reason — is its performance at the Sparkletts Invitational in Fresno in November 2000.
The event doubled as the coming out party for one of my all-time favorite players, Kevin Houston, who played just one season in a Bona uniform, but put together one of the best statistical campaigns (20 points, 7 rebounds per game) of any Bonnie this millennium.
The 6-foot-5 Miami transfer racked up 23 points — off the bench — to lead Bona, which had already beaten New Mexico State, to a convincing 87-74 win over host Fresno State in the championship game.
The first action of 2000-01, it was a strong initial encore after playing in the NCAA Tournament eight months earlier. It was the second West Coast tournament title in as many seasons for the Bonnies, who had captured Pepperdine’s Malibu Classic in November 1999. To this day, it’s the last time a Bona team won an in-season tournament in which a traditional champion was crowned.
(Bona went 3-1 with a tiebreaking victory over Rutgers at the Garden State Challenge in 2008, but wasn’t technically considered a titleist; it played for championships at the BTI Classic at Illinois State in 2009, the Gulf Coast Showcase in 2013 and the Emerald Coast Classic in 2017, but fell short in each instance).
Though lower, undoubtedly, on its list of goals, Bona will get another crack at some non-conference hardware again this season.
AS HAS already been reported in this space, Schmidt’s team will participate in the Boca Raton Beach Classic on Dec. 1 and 2, the program officially announced on Wednesday. It’s the third time in the last seven years that Bona will play in a Florida-based event and the fourth straight year that features an in-season tournament.
This one, though, will be run a little differently.
The eight participating teams have been divided into two brackets, both of which will follow traditional tournament play. The Bonnies will be part of the Hall of Fame Bracket, along with host Florida Atlantic, Illinois-Chicago and San Diego. The Naismith Bracket consists of Canisius, Hofstra, Holy Cross and Mercer.
Bona earned the primetime slot on Day 1, taking on San Diego in the last of the four games at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 1. Though not a power conference opponent, the Toreros figure to be a quality addition to SBU’s non-league slate; they won 21 games a year ago — their second consecutive 20-plus win season — while advancing to the NIT and finishing inside the top 100 of the newly formed NET rankings.
The winner of that game will advance to play either Florida Atlantic or Illinois-Chicago in Monday’s championship at 8 p.m. while the third-place contest is scheduled for 5 p.m. FAU, a member of Conference USA, won 17 games last year while UIC went 16-16, including a 10-8 mark in the Horizon League.
ADDITIONALLY, all eight teams will play a pair of crossover on-campus games leading up to the Boca Raton portion of the event. Bona, as one of the featured programs, will get two home games: against Mercer, of the Southern Conference, on Tuesday, Nov. 26, and Hofstra on Saturday, Dec. 7, which was previously announced as the night Bona will honor the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Final Four team and the golden celebration of its first game.
With the addition of the Mercer contest, 11 of the Bonnies’ non-conference opponents are set. That list includes home games with Mercer, Hofstra, Niagara and Vermont and Ohio, two neutral-site games in Florida and another against Rutgers in Toronto and road contests against Buffalo, Siena, Canisius.
While that slate, currently lacking a “Power 5” opponent, might be perceived by some as weaker than in recent years, it should give Bona the opportunity for plenty of wins heading into the start of the Atlantic 10 season.
And this year, they just might be the favorite to bring back an in-season tournament title.
(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)