The most remarkable story among the teams who sit on the at-large bubble for the NCAA tournament doesn’t come from bluebloods like Syracuse or UConn, nor from historically overachieving small-school powerhouses like Gonzaga or Butler. Nor does it come from incredibly talented underachievers like Vanderbilt, with two possible first-round picks, or like LSU, with the surefire No. 1 pick in Ben Simmons.
Instead, the most remarkable story among possible at-large NCAA tournament teams comes from the most unlikely of places: St. Bonaventure University, a school with the third-lowest enrollment in Division I, fueled by the lowest basketball budget in the Atlantic 10, and in a part of the country that you’ve probably never heard of and almost certainly never visited.
St. Bonaventure University is currently 20-7, with an RPI of 35 and impressive road wins over Dayton and St. Joseph’s. That’s the very definition of a bubble team. This comes from a school with an enrollment of 1,678 undergrads, located in southwestern New York just north of the Pennsylvania border and at the center of a triangle between Buffalo, Erie and State College. It’s near the picturesque Allegany State Park, tucked between the small cities of Olean and Allegany, in an area with a shrinking population of around 20,000 people.
Like I said: You don’t know where St. Bonaventure is. Trust me.
Sophomore guard Jaylen Adams
But do you know what Mark Schmidt, a former Boston College player who is the Bonnies’ ninth-year head coach, saw when he took over at this tiny, academically rigorous school fresh off NCAA probation?
He saw it as an opportunity.
Schmidt remembered playing road games at St. Bonaventure when he was an assistant coach at Xavier under Skip Prosser, those dominant Xavier teams with David West. He remembers St. Bonaventure beating Xavier in the Reilly Center, the campus gym that’s often packed to its capacity of 5,780.
"When we were driving back to the airport, I told Skip, ‘That’s the loudest place I’ve ever been,’" Schmidt said. "My ears were still ringing half an hour after (the) game. When I took the job, they were struggling. But it wasn’t a graveyard."
Senior forward Dion Wright (right) and senior guard Marcus Posley.
Struggling: That’s one way to put it. In 2003, after then-coach Jan van Breda Kolff allowed a junior college transfer to play even though he was academically ineligible, St. Bonaventure was forced to forfeit all the games in which that player appeared. They were banned from their conference tournament. Players, feeling betrayed by people they trusted, voted to sit out the final two games of the regular season in protest. The head coach, athletic director and school president all lost their jobs. The Bonnies were put on NCAA probation for three years and forfeited three scholarships a year. When Anthony Solomon moved from being a Notre Dame assistant to St. Bonaventure’s new coach, he inherited an impossible situation. Solomon’s teams only won 24 games in four seasons before Schmidt took over.
Schmidt knew this job was challenging. But he no longer thought it was impossible. He knew he had to recruit everywhere, not just in his slice of New York. He knew he had to convince players that a small, basketball-obsessed environment — one that he compares to a miniature version of Lexington, Ky. — was the right fit for what those players want. His NCAA tournament team from 2012 had six international players. Only two players on this year’s team are from New York; Schmidt has players from Montreal, from California, from Baltimore, from Georgia.
"At Bonaventure the evaluation is so, so important," Schmidt said. "If you’re a top 25 program in the country, you go into a gym and say, ‘That’s the guy I want.’ It’s a no brainer. For us, we can’t get that guy. We look for the second or the third guy. And in a couple years that second or third guy is going to be as good as that first guy. We gotta turn over a lot of stones."
That’s what senior forward Dion Wright has been for Schmidt: An unfinished product who came into St. Bonaventure without any other Division I offers, who averaged 2.8 points per game his freshman year, and who now leads the Atlantic 10 in double-doubles.
Head coach Mark Schmidt.
"You have to look at kids and project what they’re going to be a couple years down the road," Schmidt said. "A part of that is the work ethic. If someone has the passion and love for the game, those are the kids who’ll make it in our program. If you feel like it’s work coming to the gym, you’re not the right player for us."
What makes the Bonnies special this year is the same thing that can often dictate which teams can become Cinderellas: Great guard play. Both of Schmidt’s starting guards, sophomore guard Jaylen Adams and senior Marcus Posley, average upwards of 18 points per game. Both are the type of players Schmidt trusts to give the ball to when the Bonnies need a late bucket in a close game. Adams especially is considered an elite mid-major guard, someone who is shooting 45 percent from three and nabbing five assists per game. The team isn’t deep — a seven-man rotation is typical for Schmidt — but if the Bonnies beat an excellent St. Joseph’s team on Wednesday night, their NCAA tournament bid ought to be all but sealed up.
It’s a team that seems at its best when games come down to clutch guard play at the end. In games decided by five or fewer points this season, the Bonnies are 7-1.
"We’re finding ways to win," Schmidt said. "Jack Nicklaus always used to say you learn how to win by winning. The more you’re put in that situation, it becomes a confidence thing. Once you’ve done it once, you know it. It’s getting in that situation and believing you’re going to come out victorious. Sometimes it’s a bounce of the ball, but for some guys they just want the ball late, and some guys don’t."
I’m not going to pretend that I know we’ll all be talking about the Bonnies late in March when they sneak into the NCAA tournament and win a game or two. But in a season as unpredictable as this one, I do know that this school, the Little Engine That Could, becoming this season’s Cinderella is entirely possible. And if it happens, you better believe that every basketball fan in America will know all about this tiny school and its outsized passion for basketball.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.