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Opportunity knocks for improved St. Bonaventure squad Saturday afternoon

Jan 10, 2014, 2:16 PM EST

St. Bonaventure Athletics St. Bonaventure Athletics

After winning 20 games and finishing in a tie for third place in the Atlantic 10 in 2011-12 (and reached the NCAA tournament) Mark Schmidt’s St. Bonaventure Bonnies took a slight step back last season, posting an overall record of 14-15 with a 7-9 mark in conference play. That tends to happen when you bid farewell to a player as influential and talented as Andrew Nicholson, and while the Bonnies did have three players averaging double figures offensively their biggest issues came on the defensive end.

St. Bonaventure finished the 2012-13 season ranked 14th in the Atlantic 10 in field goal percentage defense, with opponents shooting 44.9% from the field, and they were also 14th in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency. So even with the loss of their top three scorers from a season ago, it was clear that regardless of who steps up to account for the lost scoring St. Bonaventure needed to improve defensively if they were to make a move up the Atlantic 10 pecking order.

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Through 15 games the Bonnies have been better defensively, with opponents shooting 42.6% from the field and scoring an average of just 0.97 points per possession. Add to this a balanced led by senior guard Matthew Wright (16.5 ppg, 3.4 apg) and the result is an 11-4 record, with the Bonnies winning their Atlantic 10 opener against Richmond on Wednesday night.

But while that 84-70 victory was a good one, a lot more will be learned about the Bonnies on Saturday afternoon when they visit No. 19 UMass in the first game of a triple-header on NBC Sports Network. It’s the first of two A-10 games on the docket, with Rhode Island/George Washington (2:30 p.m.) being the other and Ivy League rivals Princeton and Penn (6:00 p.m.) completing the slate.

While that Princeton/Penn game is the league opener for both, Rhode Island and George Washington will look to avoid starting 0-2 in Atlantic 10 play. In addition to being broadcast on NBC Sports Network, all three games are available on the NBC Sports Live Extra app as well.

UMass, picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic 10’s preseason poll, is off to a 13-1 start with point guard Chaz Williams leading a talented group of players capable of attacking teams on both ends of the floor. The length of Maxie Esho and Raphiael Putney makes for tough match-ups, and center Cady Lalanne’s been one of the most improved players in the Atlantic 10.

Both teams have six players averaging at least nine points per game this season, but UMass has produced more of the attention-grabbing wins that have them in the national polls and on their way to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998. With that being the case, Saturday’s game in Amherst represents a great opportunity for St. Bonaventure, especially when it comes to earning some respect within the Atlantic 10. If they can hit the offensive glass as they have thus far (14.0 offensive rebounds per game), the Bonnies could have a “puncher’s chance” at the Mullins Center.