Photo by Dan Nelligan
St. Bonaventure opens Atlantic 10 Conference play with a trip to the Siegel Center to face Virginia Commonwealth University. The Bonnies and Rams have played each other very evenly since the first meeting in 2013. The teams match up with an 8-8 over record against one another. Bonas arguably has the most important win in the series that came on March 14, 2021, when the Bonnies defeated the Rams in the A10 Championship Game. Here’s everything you need to know about this important conference tilt.
Mark Schmidt’s team enters conference play at 9-3. Following the team’s thrilling last-minute win over Akron, the Bonnies have now won two straight and seven of the last eight contests. This team has a tall task in front of them as playing on the road in conference is hard, but going to a hostile Siegel Center is a different animal.
Graduate transfer Mika Admas-Woods continues to lead this Bonaventure squad. Even with his slow day against Akron, he was responsible for the game-winning shot. Adams-Woods leads the team in points per game at a 14.7 clip while also leading the team in assists with 49 (4.1 APG). He also leads the Bonnies in three-point percentage at 50% (22/44).
The Bonnies had three other players averaging more than 10 points per game in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Chad Venning has scored 13.3 points and grabbed 4.3 rebounds per game to go along with his team-leading 21 blocks in the first 12 contests. Charles Pride and Moses Flowers continue to hold their averages steady. Pride scores 11.2 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds per game while Flowers averages 10.7 points per game and a team-high 24 made threes.
Noel Brown, Daryl Banks III, Assa Essamvous and Barry Evans also continue to give their coach important minutes. Brown has been the backup this team has needed for the past five seasons as he sits at 6.7 points and 2.4 rebounds per game. Evans had possibly the most impactful game of his season against Akron with solid defending and rebounding. Evans’ average has climbed all the way to 6.2 rebounds per game. Banks and Assa have both started in every game this season. Banks average 8.3 points per game while Assa sits at 6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per contest.
St. Bonaventure enters tonight’s game ranked 65th in the NET Rankings while sitting 78th in the Kenpom Ratings. The Bonnies present the Rams the ability to pick up a quadrant two home victory tonight.
Projected Starting Five: Assa, Adams-Woods, Banks III, Pride, Venning
It has been a season of transition for VCU. Former head coach Mike Rhoades left for Penn State and took a handful of his players with him. The Rams then poached former Utah State head coach Ryan Odom and a pair of his players to take over the program. The most notable Ram departures were Ace Baldwin (12.7 PPG, 5.8 APG) and Brandon Johns (11.6 PPG, 5.2 PRG) with three other players with 9.0+ point averages also departing.
The newest and current edition of the VCU Rams enter conference play with an 8-5 record. The Rams struggled to begin the year with those five losses coming in their first 10 games to McNeese State, Iowa State, Boise State, Norfolk State and Memphis. Some notable wins for VCU have come over Samford, Penn State and Temple. The Rams enter this game winners of four straight contests and on their seventh straight home game.
Like Bonaventure, the Rams have a quartet of major scorers with a cast of solid support behind them. Max Shulga leads qualified Rams with 15.8 points per game. The 6-foot-5 senior guard has also contributed 52 assists this season. Zeb Jackson has also been fantastic from the guard position for VCU. Jackson also stands at 6-foot-5 and averages 13.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest.
Odom’s team is getting healthy at the right time. Sean Bairstow and Joe Bamisile, a pair of transfers, have both returned from injuries to make their season debuts within the past three games. Bairstow is a 6-foot-8 forward who transferred in from Utah State. The Australian native has averaged 16.5 points and grabbed 5.5 rebounds in his first two games. Bamisile is listed as a 6-foot-4 guard who transferred from Oklahoma. In his first three games as a Ram, Bamisile has scored 15.0 points per game. VCU’s rebounding leader is 6-foot-8 forward Toibu Lawal. The sophomore from London, England averages 9.0 points and 6.5 boards per game.
With the returns of Bairstow and Bamisile, the Rams have suddenly become an extremely deep team. Guard Jason Nelson along with forward Alphonzo Billups III have played in every game this season while averaging 7.8 and 6.1 points per game respectively. The Rams have also seen a trio of players not at the top of the stat sheet that start nearly every game. Christian Fermin (5.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG), Michael Belle (5.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG) and Kuany Kuany (4.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG) have all been mainstays in the starting lineup. The shortest of the trio stands at 6-foot-7 while the tallest is listed at 6-foot-10.
VCU enters tonight’s game at 87th in the NET Rankings and 88th in the Kenpom Ratings. The Rams will present the Bonnies with a chance to pick up a solid quadrant two road victory.
Projected Starting Five: Jackson, Bairstow, Shulga, Kuany, Fermin
Players to Watch
Charles Pride – The Bryant transfer continues to be an impact not only offensively, but on the defensive side of the floor as well. Pride will guard one of VCU’s high-scoring guards (I predict Shulga or Bamisile) and will be a key piece to Bonaventure’s stout defensive scheme. The guard’s rebounding has also been an underlying reason the Bonnies have been winning games as he leads the team in that category. This game might come down to Pride with the ball in his hands in a big moment.
Sean Bairstow – Bairstow has only played in two games this season but is averaging an impressive 16.5 points per game. He is also hauling in 5.5 rebounds per contest. I would not be surprised to see his end-of-season numbers finish in this range as he averaged 10.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game at Utah State last season. It will be interesting to see who Schmidt has guarding the 6-foot-8, 205-pound forward. I expect Assa and Evans to follow him around all night.
These teams met once last season where the Bonnies went into the Siegel Center and came away with a 61-58 victory. After a low-scoring 23-18 first half, the Bonnies out scored the Rams 43-35 in the second to grab the win. Assa and Flowers led St. Bonaventure with 15 points each while Venning poured in 13. Ace Baldwin also potted 15 points with Jalen DeLoach scoring 12. Bonas went 8/17 from beyond the arc, with Assa cashing five triples, while VCU went 2/16 from deep.
Prediction and Keys to the Game
Akron was not only a dogfight but a sign of things to come in conference play. Winning on the road in this sport is difficult to begin with. Add the road game to the conference schedule, and pair it with one of the most difficult venues to play in in the conference, and it becomes a tall task for any team. As Coach Schmidt has said many times before, “we need to continue to play good defense, it travels.” That statement remains true today as that will be one of the major keys to bringing a victory back to Olean.
Besides suffocating defense, the Bonnies must shoot better than they did against Akron. Shooting 38.1% from the field and 4/15 from three will not get the job done on the road against a tough conference opponent. If the Bonnies continue to play the Mark Schmidt brand of defense along with shooting over 42% from the field and making at least seven threes, then they will come away victorious.
At the time of this being written, the Rams were listed as 4.5-point favorites. This game is going to be extremely close and could look eerily similar to the Akron game. In the end, I think the team that has the ball for the last possession will win the game (give or take some free throws). It’s difficult to pick against this Bonaventure team but I am going to go with a completely healthy Rams on their home court. VCU wins by 2-4 points.