ST. BONAVENTURE — It’s almost surely what they had in mind from the outset.
In the summer of 2017, the St. Bonaventure and Vermont men’s basketball teams came to terms on a three-game series that would begin in Rochester, send Bona to Burlington for the first time and end in the Reilly Center.
With both squads on the rise, the idea is that it would give the Bonnies a couple of chances at a quality non-conference victory and the Catamounts a crack at knocking off an Atlantic 10 foe … and create an exciting, first-class matchup for fans.
And that’s exactly how it’s played out.
Bona, of course, won on Matt Mobley’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer at Blue Cross Arena in December of 2017, garnering a win that would ultimately help it make the NCAA Tournament. The Catamounts pulled out their own dramatic triumph last winter, downing the Bonnies 83-76 in double overtime behind a career-high 42 points from star forward Anthony Lamb.
And now, here we are … the rubber match.
BONA WILL host Vermont tonight (7 o’clock, WPIG-FM, WHDL-AM, ESPN+-live stream) in the anticipated completion of the series inside the RC. It’s an opportunity for coach Mark Schmidt’s team to not only bounce back from Tuesday’s disappointing season-opening loss to Ohio, but knock off one of the best opponents on its non-league slate.
The Bonnies expect another battle with the reigning America East Conference champion Catamounts, who return Lamb, named to both the Wooden and Naismith Award preseason watch lists, for his senior season and are the unanimous favorite to win their league title again this year.
But they understand they’ll have to play much better than they did Tuesday to have a chance, particularly on offense.
“We’ve got to make some shots,” Schmidt said. “We can’t shoot 3-for-19 from 3s. We’ve got to get some more stuff off of our defense. We’ve just got to play better; we didn’t play well. We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the ball (16 turnovers), making baskets when we have numbers and making better decisions overall, both offensively and defensively.”
VERMONT WILL enter its first game of the 2019-20 season ranked No. 78 in the KenPom projection, second-highest among Bona non-league foes, behind only Rutgers (No. 63).
And there’s more to its team than just Lamb.
The Catamounts welcome back four players who started last year’s double-overtime thriller, including guards Stef Smith and Robin Duncan, who went for 21 and 11 points, respectively, in that contest.
Making this an even bigger challenge for the Bonnies is that they’ll be without shot-blocking center Osun Osunniyi, whose mere presence on the defensive end can change the complexion of a game.
The 6-foot-10 center exited the Ohio game early in the second half with a knee injury. He’s been diagnosed with a bone bruise in his knee and could miss up to a month of action, according to CBS’s Jon Rothstein.
Still, with Vermont, it comes back to the reigning America East Player of the Year in Lamb.
The Rochester native averaged 21.2 points (No. 32 in the country) and 7.8 rebounds as a junior and has gone for 27 and 42 points in two games against Bona. He recently checked in at No. 30 on nbcsports.com’s list of the Top 100 players in college basketball this winter (Osunniyi also made the list, at No. 93).
By the end of last season, Bona had established itself as one of the best defensive teams in the conference. With that in mind, is there anything it can do differently on Lamb in this third and final meeting?
“HE HAD (42) last year, and we had a great chance to win,” Schmidt noted. “There’s different ways you can go about it — let him go off and try to stop the other guys or try to stop him and put it on the other guys to make baskets.
“I’m not sure, but (I know) he can’t score 42. So whatever we need to do, hopefully we can do a better job than we did last year.”
He added, with a laugh: “I’m not sure if we have an answer … I guess we hope he misses.”
The Bonnies showed they still have plenty to improve upon after Tuesday’s 65-53 loss to the Bobcats. They get their first chance to apply what they learned in one of their biggest games not involving VCU, Davidson and Dayton.
Bona is looking to avoid its first 0-2 start under Schmidt and the first for the program since 2004-05 … and earn the series win over the Catamounts.
“We knew when we set up the schedule three years ago that Lamb was a heck of a player, that they have a heck of a program,” Schmidt said. “It’s going to be a difficult game for us; I’m glad we’re playing at home, but it’s still going to be very difficult. We need to play our best to have a chance.”
Of having to play without their preseason third team all-conference center, Schmidt added: “When we lose a player of his caliber, it’s never good. But it gives another guy (perhaps, in this instance, freshmen Robert Carpenter or Justin Winston) an opportunity to come in.
“As we stress all the time, you never know when your name is going to get called, and someone’s name is going to be called (tonight), and hopefully they’re prepared and hopefully they take advantage of the opportunity.”