Monday, March 12, 2018

Bonnies' NCAA Tournament return carries added meaning with UCLA matchup

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

The what-ifs are a big part of sporting debate.

They can vary over a wide range of topics and events. They fuel our passion for the specific sport. Arguably, there is no specific sport like college basketball to fire up those what-could-have-happened-if debates.

On Selection Sunday, St. Bonaventure wound up on the board paired against UCLA in a First Four matchup. For years, Bonaventure-UCLA remained an oft-discussed topic among Bona faithful. Seeing that pairing simply heats up the debate.

Personally, arriving at St. Bonaventure in the late summer of 1970, upperclassmen taught us two things -- to despise Little Three rivals Niagara and Canisius (even more so) -- and that the Bonnies would be national champions if Bob Lanier did not go down with an injury. The latter part, we believed even before arriving at the heart of the enchanted mountains. A little history is in order:

The Bonnies were primed for a big season, led by All-American center Bob Lanier. At 6’11”, Lanier was almost unstoppable in the low post and had the ability -- rare for big men back then -- to move outside and hit a fifteen-footer. They caught at least regional attention with a big win over a powerful Duquesne team at home in University (now Reilly) Center. The nation took notice as they defeated Purdue to win the ECAC Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden, with Lanier going for 50 points in the championship. St. Bonaventure had just one regular season loss, a two-point loss at Villanova in the infamous Cat House.

The Bonnies entered the tournament at 22-1. First-round opponent Davidson, led by Mike Maloy, was a challenge. Bonaventure prevailed in a game contested at Alumni Hall (now Carnesecca Arena) on the St. John’s campus. The East regional semifinal opponent was NC State. South Carolina was one of the strongest clubs all season, but Frank McGuire’s Gamecocks were upset in the ACC final by the Wolfpack. Interestingly, the regionals were at Carolina Coliseum, South Carolina’s home court. NC State, with "Moving" Vann Williford, was dispatched, 80-68. The final was a rematch with Villanova.

During the consolation -- they had those even in the regionals back then -- while NC State was facing Niagara, Bonaventure and Villanova players were in the stands watching the third-place game. In the documentary "Unfinished Dreams," on that 1969-70 Bonaventure season, Billy Kalbaugh, the Bonnies’ point guard and Lanier’s roommate, tells of several of his teammates overhearing Villanova’s Fran O’Hanlon telling his girlfriend that having beaten Bonaventure, he did not expect a big problem. Lanier was one who heard this, and simply told the other Bonaventure players, "let’s go." Off to the locker room they went, fired up.

The regional final went to Bonaventure by a 97-74 count. The late-game sequence, though, remains more in Bona faithful's minds rather than the score or Eastern Regional championship trophy. About a minute or so before he was set to come out, Lanier was hit on the knee by Villanova’s Chris Ford during a scramble; definitely not intentional, but for the Bonnies, it was monumental. Lanier suffered a season -- and Bona career-ending -- injury.

The record will show Bonaventure gave an excellent effort at the Final Four, falling to a much taller Jacksonville team in College Park, Maryland. Matt Gantt, all of 6’5”, used his jumping ability to battle 7’2” Artis Gilmore of the Dolphins. The Bonnies lost, 91-83, then dropped a six-point decision to New Mexico State -- with future NBA center Sam Lacey -- in the consolation.

Larry Weise’s group finished 25-3. The question from that time in mid-March until today persists: Would a Bona-led Lanier (it was assumed Jacksonville would have been dispatched) take down UCLA? The Bruins were between franchise centers. Lew Alcindor was gone and Bill Walton two years away. In his latter years, UCLA’s John Wooden, always concerned with his team more than opponents, did admit that Bonaventure with Lanier and the way they were playing was a concern. UCLA had Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe at the forward spot. The feeling is Lanier would have dominated Steve Patterson with the ability to post or go outside. And as Kalbaugh noted in "Unfinished Dreams," the Bonnies were rebounding very well and really coming together, playing their best at the right time, spawning an ongoing debate and quintessential what-if.

Throughout this current season, it appeared Mark Schmidt’s Bonnies played to avoid a what-if, as in, what would be the outcome if Bona did not get the wins on a strong out-of-conference schedule or fall to upsets in the Atlantic 10? Would it be 2016 again, standing alone on Selection Sunday minus a dance partner? Following an opening night loss to Niagara (Little Three again), Bona was able to defeat the likes of Maryland, Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, and Vermont. Conference play started with losses in four of the first six outings. The Bonnies were facing a possibility of their NCAA Tournament hopes being dashed. Then, they caught fire. Bonaventure reeled off a dozen straight regular season victories to close that part of the slate at 24-6. Included were two Reilly Center classics: A win over Rhode Island, undefeated in the A-10, before an ESPN2 audience, then the triple overtime thriller over Davidson on senior night. Win number 13 came in the A-10 tournament quarterfinals against Richmond before Davidson ended the run in the semis. The record, 25-7, was deemed acceptable to get in.

A contrast in circumstance, as 48 years ago, there was an opportunity to reach the pinnacle -- the top of the college basketball world -- an opportunity denied by an injury. Injuries, part of the game, are all too often beyond one’s control. Nearly five decades later, achieving a goal was realistically in sight. The Bonnies had the chance to respond and eliminate and what could have been scenarios. It was on them. When the Bonnies stood 2-4 in conference play with the season sliding away, Schmidt and his team knew they had to get back to basics: Defense. A commitment to that end of the floor. Continued scoring from Jaylen Adams, A-10 Co-Player of the Year, and Matt Mobley. The emergence of Courtney Stockard and LaDarien Griffin. All of those pieces entered into the equation. Down the stretch, it seemed almost every game fell under the label of a must-win. The Bonnies responded.

On Tuesday night in Dayton, they face a UCLA team they hoped to line up against nearly five decades ago. If they beat the Bruins back in 1970, they would be national champions. Of further note, if they beat the Bruins Tuesday, it will be the Bonnies' first NCAA tournament victory since that win over Villanova, a win that still carries the weight and ponderance of what could have transpired had the basketball gods been a bit friendlier.

Basketball Reference provided the records. No need to refresh the memory of the names from the past: Lanier, Kalbaugh, Paul Hoffman, Greg "Bubba" Gary and Gantt for the Bonnies. Wicks, Rowe, Patterson, John Vallely and Henry Bibby taking the floor for UCLA. On Tuesday, Adams, Mobley, Griffin and Stockard face a Bruin team -- whose lineup I admit having to partially look up -- coached by Steve Alford with Aaron Holiday, Kris Wilkes, Thomas Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman.

On Tuesday evening, the Bonnies and Bruins tip it off at UD Arena. History has its place and is of interest. The past will not be a concern to the coaches or players of either team. It is about getting after it, doing what needs to be done for 40 minutes, all about those proverbial two words: Survive and advance.

For a minute, understand there will be Bona faithful viewing; especially those of us remembering when gas was 25 cents a gallon, occasionally thinking back to March 1970. A glorious time in Bona basketball history and still a time with those ever-unfinished dreams, one that simply will no go away.

Nor do we let it.

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