St. Bonaventure entered the 2018 NCAA Tournament as an underdog, technically. However, winning an 11-seed vs. 11-seed matchup in the First Four would not typically qualify as a Cinderella; typically, anyway.
But the Bonnies beat UCLA, a power-conference program with more national championships than any other in college basketball. What's more, they did so behind a 26-point effort from Courtney Stockard, a forward who missed the previous game due to injury, and the entire previous two years with a foot malady.
Now sporting its first NCAA Tournament win since 1970, St. Bonaventure meets a Florida Gators program that has been to at least the Elite Eight in each of its last five trips to the Big Dance. The Gators endured an up-and-down 2018, but bring a balanced, talented lineup to Dallas for Thursday night's showdown in the East Region.
East Region: No. 11 St. Bonaventure Bonnies (26-7) vs. No. 6 Florida Gators (20-12)
Time: Approximately 9:57 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: American Airlines Center (Dallas)
Keys for St. Bonaventure
UCLA came into its First Four matchup with St. Bonaventure sporting a top-35 offense in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom.com, but the Bruins could muster only 58 points against a stout Bonnies defense.
Defense dictated the tone of the entire game, giving St. Bonaventure a 28-23 lead at halftime, and factoring into a critical, 12-0 run in the second half. The Bonnies excelled at cutting off lanes when UCLA ball-handlers penetrated, and rotated out effectively to deny clean looks at 3-pointers. That's an effort St. Bonaventure must double in order to limit Florida, the nation's No. 37 offense in adjusted efficiency and one of the most balanced squads in the Tournament.
The Gators have four players averaging in double figures scoring, all of whom play on the perimeter: Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov, Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen. Hudson and Koulechov both shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point line; bringing down that average is critical for the Bonnies' chances.
Likewise, St. Bonaventure needs to be aware of Keith Stone, the Florida interior presence with a proven knack for stepping out beyond the arc. Stone scored 22 points in the SEC Tournament loss to Arkansas on an array of buckets inside and outside of the 3-point line.
Keys for Florida
Florida's played clean basketball on the offensive end this season, ranking sixth nationally in turnover percentage. Avoiding giveaways against the Bonnies' pestering defense should prove crucial to dictating the pace of game play, particularly in light of St. Bonaventure's shakiness on the glass.
The Bonnies are undersized, relying on the perimeter play of Jaylen Adams, Matt Mobley and Stockard to set the tone. A team with a height advantage, which Florida will have, can control the glass. Avoid turnovers — something UCLA, with 20 giveaways, did not — and that typically allows a St. Bonaventure opponent to set tempo.
To that same end, the Gators must establish a scoring threat inside the 3-point arc. Florida shoots the long-range ball well as a team, but ranks a dismal No. 274 on 2-point field-goal percentage. Whether it's on penetration, or getting someone like Stone looks in the paint, the Gators need to find that close-range scoring touch UCLA could not establish against St. Bonaventure in the First Four.
Florida entered the 2017-18 season with a bevy of key returners from a team that last NCAA Tournament, came just a few plays shy of making the program's fourth Final Four in 11 years. Expectations were high, but inconsistency's plagued the Gators throughout the campaign.
Another run to the second weekend of the Tournament is a real possibility; Florida's depth and 3-point shooting are two traits that translate nicely to the March format. But can the Gators flip the switch? St. Bonaventure is a difficult matchup, as the Bonnies swarm defensively and play with fire. Mark Schmidt has an overachieving lineup capable of becoming one of this Tournament's most intriguing, Cinderella stories.
If the Gators play to their potential, they should win. It's a big if, however.
Prediction: Florida 64, St. Bonaventure 61
(Top photo courtesy of St. Bonaventure athletics Web site)