ST. BONAVENTURE — Up to this point, perhaps quite surprisingly, I’ve done pretty well.
For the last seven years, I’ve had the pleasure of being a voting media member for the Atlantic 10’s official preseason men’s basketball poll. And in seven instances of slotting where I think St. Bonaventure will finish, I’ve been … basically dead on.
In two cases, I was exact, choosing Bona to finish fifth in 2016-17 and second in 2017-18, right where it ended up. In the next three years, I was off by just in each, pegging coach Mark Schmidt’s team for fifth in 2018-19 (it finished fourth), fourth in 2019-20 (fifth) and second last year (it won the league). The only year where I (and everybody else, for that matter) truly missed the mark was in 2015-16 -- the Marcus Posley, Jaylen Adams, Dion Wright season -- when I slotted Bona for eighth and it wound up winning a share of the regular season title (and finishing third for A-10 seeding purposes).
NOW, in some cases, picking Bona where I did was merely going with the grain. Everybody had Rhode Island and the Bonnies finishing Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in 2018. In others, however, based, perhaps, on a more intimate knowledge of this particular program and my willingness to be in Bona’s corner in such league-wide exercises, I almost certainly took a bolder approach than almost any other voter … and wound up being right.
I can almost guarantee, for example, that no one else had Bona as high as fifth in 2018-19, the year after it had lost its entire starting backcourt, including star guards Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley, to graduation; Bona actually checked in at No. 9 in that year’s official poll. And not only was it again a Top 5 team, it was top FOUR, going on that remarkable February run to earn the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the A-10 Tournament.
This year, though, there’s no need for any kind of daring perspective.
BONA will enter the 2021-22 campaign as the almost universal league favorite. It figures to also be the first team since VCU in 2014 to be voted as the unanimous A-10 frontrunner among participating pollsters.
And it will mark the first instance in the Bonnies’ 43-year history in the conference that it’s viewed from the outset as the definitive team to beat.
Yes, for Bona, with all that it has back, with one of the best coaches in the country on its sideline, with an upgraded bench, the goal must be nothing short of repeating as both regular season and A-10 Tournament champions. This is a team, after all, that will start the year nationally ranked and is being pegged by a number of national pundits as capable of a legitimate NCAA run.
But that doesn’t mean, even in a largely transitional year for the league, that it won’t be challenged.
It’s actually quite the opposite … especially when considering that Bona will be back to playing in hostile road environments, that Richmond is coming for it, that the likes of Saint Louis, VCU and Dayton have revamped their rosters in an effort to get back to the top and that the Bonnies, forever the hunters, will have as big a target on their collective back as they’ve ever had.
BONA, to be certain, will start the year at the top. But here’s what it has to be prepared for the rest of the way down:
The Spiders, in effect, also welcome back five starters from an NCAA bubble team, returning four from last year and sixth-year guard Nick Sherod, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, but averaged 13 points and five rebounds and was viewed as all-league caliber in 2019-20.
Saint Louis and VCU, the latter of whom is battling injuries at the moment, both figure to be back near the top despite key losses. The Billikens return two starters, including Player of the Year candidate Javonte Perkins, and almost all of its bench and have added a couple of key transfers in big man Francis Okoro (Oregon) and 6-foot-6 guard Jordan Nesbitt (Memphis).
VCU, meanwhile, lost Player of the Year Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland to the NBA (he was a first-round pick to the Nuggets), sophomore forward Jamir Watkins to a season-ending ACL injury and sophomore guard Ace Baldwin to a torn achilles heel over the summer. But it returns all-league forward Vince Williams Jr. and two other key bigs in Hason Ward and Levi Stockard III, brought in high-impact transfers Marcus Tsohonis (Washington) and Jimmy Nichols Jr. (Providence) and hopes to have Baldwin back by February.
Both will want revenge on Bona after the one-sided losses it handed each in last year’s A-10 Tournament.
Beyond that, Dayton has a new-look squad dotted with a couple of transfers and rising young talent, Rhode Island brought back just about everybody other than Fatts Russell and added a key piece in Ball State guard Ishmael El-Amin, Davidson returns a quality core in guard Hyunjung Lee (a dark horse First Team All-Conference candidate) and forwards Sam Mennenga and Luka Brajkovic and George Mason and UMass both have a mixture of returning veterans and transfers that should make each more intriguing this year under first-year coach Kim English and Matt McCall, respectively.
And Fordham? Well, Fordham still looks to be Fordham … at least for the moment.
Here’s one voter’s look at how the preseason predicted order of finish should shake out next week:
1. St. Bonaventure
3. Saint Louis
7. Rhode Island
8. George Mason
11. Saint Joseph’s
12. La Salle
13. George Washington