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Pollock: St. Bonaventure made every excuse not to play in the NIT except the eclipse

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A column by CHUCK POLLOCK, Senior Sports Columnist

Maybe we should just blame ESPN and let it go.

After all, it was the self-proclaimed “World-Wide Leader” which revealed earlier this week that St. Bonaventure was one of 17 schools to turn down bids to the National Invitational Tournament.

My first reaction was total incredulity … had Bona’s basketball program become so arrogant that it would  say “No thanks” to a tournament that had provided it with one of the two crowning moments in the University’s hoops history?

After the 1970 NCAAs, ruined by Bob Lanier’s disastrous absence due to a season-ending knee injury, winning the 1977 NIT was St. Bonaventure’s shining badge of national legitimacy.

But there was more than that. The Bonnies have been to the nation’s oldest post-season basketball tourney a dozen times, most recently in 2022 when they won three straight road games to earn the semifinals at Madison Square Garden. However Bona’s history with the NIT dates to the 50s when, between 1951 and ‘60 it was a six-time participant earning a national reputation while playing in the media spotlight of New York City.

My mind was spinning. If ESPN was right, St. Bonaventure was the only mid-major to reject a bid. The others — Arizona State, Cal, Florida State, Indiana, Maryland, Memphis, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Oregon State, Pitt, St. John’s, Stanford, Syracuse, UCLA, USC and Washington — are all major schools from power conferences in which half their teams make the NCAAs every year. For those schools to decline a bid to a lesser tournament happens every year. But St. Bonaventure passing up a chance to extend its season was particularly curious  given that four fellow Atlantic 10 members — Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth, Loyola-Chicago and Saint Joseph’s — didn’t feel they were above the NIT and gladly accepted an invitation.

GIVEN THE immediate outraged blowback on social media, St. Bonaventure tried an immediate bid for damage control. But this is a school which handles uncomfortable news about its men’s basketball team with the touch of a blacksmith.

Sometimes it’s little things such as the status of injured players or disciplinary actions but once it was during the biggest national blight ever to hit the program, the Bob Wickenheiser/Jamil Terrell welding scandal.

Athletic director Joe Manhertz engaged in an attempt at damage-control that former Times Herald Bonnies’ beat reporter J.P. Butler called  “a five-paragraph release that seemed lacking at best and disingenuous at worst.”

It read, “We understand that ESPN posted a graphic regarding the selection of the NIT Tournament field on air Tuesday night.

“Reaching the NCAA Tournament is the goal for St. Bonaventure basketball each year. We unfortunately came up short of that goal. Considering the logistics of what would have been an NIT road game, we made the proactive decision Sunday afternoon to inform the NIT selection committee of our concerns regarding roster uncertainty given injury and the transfer portal that would have left us at a competitive disadvantage. Together, athletics department administration and the coaching staff made the decision in the best interest of our student-athletes.

“No invitation was extended prior to our conversation with the NIT committee. We respect the NIT and not only its history overall, but what the tournament has meant to our program. We look forward to future postseason competition.”

Yada, yada, yada.

It seems clear enough, Bona didn’t reject a bid, because it wasn’t offered one as it had contacted the NIT Committee and asked not to be considered.

But here’s the reason for skepticism.

After Duquesne eliminated the Bonnies in Saturday’s A-10 Tournament semifinals, coach Mark Schmidt was asked if his team’s 20-13 record was good enough to earn an NIT bid.

Here was his response: “Hopefully. Who knows? “I don’t know what they think, but we won 20 games. I’ve been here 17 years, and I think we’ve only done that five other times. This was the sixth time that we won 20 games. So we had a good year. It was up and down. The last game never defines you.”

Does that sound like a coach who, the next day, through Manhertz, would be asking his team be removed from consideration?

In defending the decision, the third-year AD threw several factors at the wall … injuries, short roster, a first-round road game and three players entering the transfer portal. Everything but advance preparation for the eclipse.

Yet I wonder.

Clearly Schmidt was onboard with taking a bid, did he change his mind in less than 24 hours? Center Noel Brown was hurt against Duquesne but it didn’t seem severe and and Bona’s top eight players were hardly a M*A*S*H unit. Then, too, historically players relish performing in the postseason no matter how banged up they are.

Then there’s the three players who entered the transfer portal — Barry Evans, Kyrell Luc and Melian Martinez — did they know Bona opted out of the NIT before they applied to the portal? And even if they didn’t, what would have stopped them from completing the (post)season with their current team?

Manhertz’s contention about a road game in the face of those alleged injuries is embarrassingly lame. Two months after he took the job in 2022, the Bonnies won those three straight road games to make the NIT semifinals in New York. 

Supposedly, according to the AD, the decision was a consensus among athletic administration and the coaches, but you wonder if Schmidt had any say, after all everything about this episode was botched.

APPARENTLY administration didn’t find it necessary to inform the fan-base of its decision as the Bona faithful waited and hoped their team would get a bid.

Enter Manhertz with an apologetic backtrack.

In an email to season-ticket holders — by the way my wife didn’t get one — 16 hours after the fact, he responded to the overwhelmingly, disgusted negative response: “We’ve heard from you and understand your strong feelings. Your passion for St. Bonaventure in good times, and frankly, also in difficult times is what drives our place. We are indeed grateful for that passion. You should have known of our actions and the reasons behind them much sooner, and for that I apologize. We will learn from this and in the future pledge to be more transparent and timely in our communication on issues that matter most to you.”

BUT THE fact is, this is a horrible optic for an athletics department that is endlessly begging for money. One of those missives even asked for donations to keep Schmidt at the school and continue to earn tournament berths.

And yet, when one might’ve been offered, St. Bonaventure demured, forfeiting at least one more national telecast and a chance to lure potential recruits in the ever-changing roster considerations created by the portal.

If money was an issue, that should have been dismissed immediately and considered an advertising expense. I know the academics don’t like it, but I’ve told people for years, students in Vallejo, California don’t know about St. Bonaventure  because of  its accounting major. Indeed, Schmidt, just last week, admitted his team’s role in giving the University its national identity.

For a decade, I taught a sports writing class at Bona as an adjunct professor. Those juniors and seniors were totally on the Bonnies bandwagon. But each year I would remind them that there was a segment of the school’s workforce — faculty and staff — that would love for the team to go 0-30 every season.

That’s not an uncommon reality on campuses across the country … academics reacting to what they feel is an overemphasis on athletics. My guess is, a lot of those folks at Bona are holding their sides today laughing at the athletic department’s most recent embarrassment.

But here’s the rub. St. Bonaventure has one of the most respected mass communications departments in the Northeast. Part of earning a degree is classes in public relations. Would that some members of the athletic department had availed themselves to those classes rather than persistently affixing a “Kick Me” sign to their collective backside.

(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@wnynet.net.)

Read more from Chuck:

A look at the current Bona player situation and how it relates to the past

• The Buffalo Bills have had darker days with cuts during off-season

• Caitlin Clark brings up memories of St. Bonaventure women and men’s basketball players

• St. Bonaventure primed for strong finish in Atlantic 10

• Feature on the Bonnies as the season winds down

• What to make from the Super Bowl

• A look at free agency with the Buffalo Bills

• Don’t blame Bass for the playoff loss

• St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt was right about the Atlantic 10 and the Bonnies

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