Born To Run...
It was late January 2017 and ESPN had a Friday programming hole. Nobody ever told me the real reason why, not that they needed to, but A10 commish Bernadette McGlade and director of all things media Drew Dickerson had an idea. The A10 had 16-5 Dayton traveling to the Siegel Center to play 15-5 VCU for first place that Saturday. Why not move this game into that Friday night ESPN slot? There were no other major college basketball games that night so it would get all the attention. You help a television partner. Everybody wins.
The home team trailed by double digits but a big run that split halftime put VCU in control. Dayton cut the lead to five late, creating tension until JeQuan Lewis nailed two free throws to put the game out of reach in front of a frenzied crowd. For the league, it was perfection. They immediately realized the gold mine they were sitting on and that ESPN had these prime time windows so it became an annual thing, this A-10 ESPN Friday Night Showcase. The league understood there are always other games, so they’ve purposely scheduled marquee games to grab the attention.
Tonight, it’s a rematch of last year’s championship game.
My point: these Friday night games are awesome, and don’t let those sonsofbitches from other conferences pretend they had the vision of the A-10 brass. Friday night belongs to the A-10.
THE LAST GAME, IN BRIEF (THANKS, JERRY)
Ace Baldwin hit four threes and scored a career-high 16 points in an 84-57 thumping of GW. VCU made a season-high 44% of its threes (10-23), though it’s worth noting me, Kowalczyk, and three dead guys could knock down five of 12 against that GW defense. Vince Williams added 11 points, five rebounds, two blocks, two steals, and a career-high eight assists and Jalen DeLoach played his fourth-straight game that was better than the previous game. DeLoach had seven rebounds.
Under the radar moment: garbage time began about midway through the second half and Mike Rhoades, so furious he had to be restrained from eating the scorer’s table, called timeout and got the starters back into the game. Message sent. Message received.
The Bonnies are 9-3 on the year, coming off an 80-76 overtime win at LaSalle. Its best wins were in Charleston where they beat Clemson and Marquette. Worst loss is either Northern Iowa or a 67,288-point loss to Virginia Tech. There are two common opponents: LaSalle, and the Bonnies other loss was a 10-point setback to UConn. Kenpom has St. Bonaventure winning tonight, 66-63.
I remain stunned at the Bonnies box score in its overtime win over LaSalle, its first game after 25 days off because of, well, you know. The St. Bonaventure bench played a grand total of three minutes. Three. Jalen Adaway, Dom Welch, and Jaren Holmes went all 45, with Kyle Lofton (44) and Osun Osunniyi (43) slacking. I kid, but it’s weird and one of the five billion intriguing things about this game. Side note: interestingly (to me), those five are quint-captains for Mark Schmidt.
In short, they’ve got dudes. Now, they only have five of them so it behooves VCU to be sharp from the tip. Lollygagging the first five minutes is five fewer minutes to tire the Bonnies. Fatigue—mental stress—compounds getting tired because you’re running around a lot. How Mark Schmidt deploys his bench is almost as important as when. Kyle Lofton may be dead ass tired and needs a break, but if VCU has just gone on an 8-2 run that kid is not coming out of the game. Or is he? Everything about this game is intriguing to me.
Lofton is less a head-of-the-snake player and more a temperature gauge or boss man. There is a difference. The Bonnies have three low- to mid-teens scorers:
Jalen Adaway: does so many things well and is a dawg. You just don’t hear much about him but to me he is their scariest player.
Dom Welch: top three point shooter (33-93).
Jaren Holmes: they run a lot through Holmes. Went to the same high school as Justin Tillman. Published an article was on the promise of convalescent plasma therapy in the treatment of COVID-19. Outside of anything having to do with basketball, kudos to Holmes.
And of course Osun Osunniyi hangs around the basket, wiry and one of the best shot blockers in the nation. His 248 blocks is third among active players.
That’s multiple guys they can rely on in a pinch. Lofton, however, dictates the attitude. I’ll go to my grave saying his early threes in last year’s A10 championship were the killers. This year, Lofton made one basket and committed five turnovers in that horrific Virginia Tech loss. It’s like when your boss is in a bad mood or freezes. Everyone walks around the office with a holy shit look about them. Boss is rolling? It’s Christmas Day.
Chris Kowalczyk Stat of the Night: In the six games since Ace Baldwin’s return, VCU is shooting 46.9% and averaging 71.5 points per game. They are 6-0. In the eight games prior, the Rams shot 40.6% and averaged 57.4ppg. Marcus Tsohonis is averaging 9.2 points and shooting 56.5% from three (13-of-23) in those six games.
DO YOU REMEMBER?
February 4, 2017: OF COURSE you remember the 0.4 game. Bonkers. It started when Mat
t Mobley hit a strong ass stepback three and the fans hit the court. The Experience retrieved the game ball from a security guard, JeQuan Lewis sacked up and hit the free throw that sent the game to overtime after the chaos, and VCU held on for the 83-77 win. Two notes, lost in time. First, when order was restored and the final 0.4 of regulation played out, Jonny Williams’ three-quarter court heave hit the front iron and backboard before missing. Imagine if that had gone in. And I’ll never forget official Gary Prager grabbing Will Wade by the elbow and telling him “hang on, we need to get Coach Schmidt, but you’re gonna’ like this.”
February 7, 2015: It was a gray, snowy day in Olean and VCU was playing without Treveon Graham and Briante Weber. Graham still had a bum ankle after that cheap ass play by the kid from SLU, and this was the second game after Weber’s disastrous knee injury. A shorthanded VCU team fell behind by 10 with about 10 minutes to play but tied it up when Jordan Burgess attacked the rim for an easy layup. The Bonnies went downcourt and Marcus Posely hit a wild kind of sidearm scoop at the buzzer. Don’t get me wrong—the kid hit a tough shot, good on him--and the stands emptied. Yeah VCU lost but I choose to remember the fight in that team. Burgess scored nine points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Terry Larrier led the Rams with 15 points. JeQuan Lewis hit four threes.
THIS IS THE LAST SECTION
VCU is a step up from LaSalle, especially in terms of stress put on you. The Explorers are like a seventh-grade sock hop, while VCUs defense is more senior prom with a rented Hummer. (Parents will understand.) Mike Rhoades talks of VCUs ability to respond. In this game it will be interesting to see how St. Bonaventure responds, or conversely how VCU compounds stress and tamps down a response.
Keep an eye on the mini runs and appetizers because those are the most important Response Moments in a game. What the hell does that mean, you ask? Easy.
Many games are won by going on multiple mini-runs: a 10-4 here and an 8-3 there builds a lead and diminishes an opponent's spirit. You don’t have to soul-crush everyone to win. An appetizer: you score four quick points and get a stop. That’s the appetizer. Then what? Do you take the 4-0 and turn it into a run, or do you take a bad shot, fail to get back on defense, and give up a score, thus wasting an opportunity? When the meal is served you’d better be ready to eat.
St. Bonaventure doesn’t beat themselves. They average only 11 turnovers per game and shoot 77% from the line. Adaway hasn’t missed a free throw all year. What happens when VCU starts creating stress is the focal point of this game.
Enjoy it, because Friday belongs to all of us.