Dying for Depth: Auditing the Issues at Saint Bonaventure

The 2021-22 Saint Bonaventure men’s basketball team is experiencing one of the rarest story arcs in college basketball. The Bonnies are a disappointment, to a head scratching degree.

That’s not a new concept at face value. If the preseason AP Poll translated to the 25 best teams in April, we wouldn’t even play the games. Every year has disappointing teams. Usually, however, those disappointments come from the power conferences and the blue blood programs. Teams and coaches that we all collectively talk ourselves into being better than they end up being. Texas is going through that right now.

But speaking very generally, when a mid-major team returns enough talent to be ranked in the polls and considered as a team with a chance to reach the Final Four, it’s for good reason. If a team like that is going to be derailed, usually there is an injury or other outside factor at play.

Again, this hasn’t happened for the Bonnies. All of the meaningful players on the roster have been healthy. The issue has not been the health or the quality of those players, but instead the quantity. Bonnies head coach Mark Schmidt has tested the limits of how little depth a team needs to be successful and it appears that test has come back to bite him.

Let’s backpedal for a second and discuss how this Bonnies team built up expectations for this season. Last year, this was a very good team. Saint Bonaventure won the Atlantic 10 in the regular season and the conference tournament. The Bonnies earned a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the program’s third bid since 2010.

Following the season, head coach Mark Schmidt was heavily connected to the coaching opening at his (and my) alma mater Boston College. A jump from the A-10 to the ACC, where football money flourishes? Not to mention, moving from (no offense) Olean, New York to the posh Boston suburbs? Sounded like a no brainer.

Schmidt declined, likely because he would be returning the key pieces from the 2021 team into 2022. Those pieces included his entire starting five. For most teams, that is a big deal. For those Bonnies, it was monstrous.

Last season, Schmidt was dedicated to playing his starting five as much as possible. All five players averaged over 33 minutes per game, each playing over 82 percent of possible minutes. According to KenPom’s data, bench players accounted for just 9.8 percent of the Bonnies minutes, ranking the lowest in the nation. The St. Bonaventure starting five saw more possessions on the floor as a five many unit than any other lineup in the country, except for Creighton’s starting five, per EvanMiya.com. The five man unit played over 1200 total offensive and defensive possessions together. The Bonnies second most frequent lineup, still including four of the starting five, saw just over 200 total possessions together. Compare that to the Gonzaga team that spent much of last year atop the rankings, which had five lineups top 200 possessions.

Bonnies guard Kyle Lofton led the nation in total minutes played, minutes per game, and percentage of minutes played. In fact, no player since 2009-10 has played more minutes per game than Lofton. If not for foul trouble and presumably some sign of fatigue somewhere, Schmidt might have stuck with the same five guys for the entire season if he could.

Quite simply stated, Schmidt almost never subbed. It’s an interesting gambit. If your five best players work well together, stay healthy, and are in good enough shape to play 35 minutes (or more), is there a reason to change the lineup on the court? If that lineup is clearly your five best, why not ride it? In 2020-21, it worked, all the way to the Big Dance.

Entering 2021-22, all five would return. That seemed like incredible news. In November, the Bonnies reached as high as No. 16 in the AP Poll after a 5-0 start that included three very strong wins en route to an early season tournament victory in Charleston.

Since that 5-0 start, the wheels have fallen off. The Bonnies are 7-6 since Thanksgiving and sit at just 4-3 in A-10 play, in sixth place and well outside any projected NCAA Tournament field.

Schmidt’s attachment to his starting five hasn’t wavered. Although the percentage of bench minutes for the Bonnies is up to 13 percent, St. Bonaventure still leads the nation in percentage of minutes played by starters. The core five Bonnies are once again among the most played lineups in college basketball, having played the 4th most possessions of any lineup in the country. Last season, the Bonnies’ five starters were on the floor together 56 percent of the time. This year, that number is up to 72 percent.

The three players outside the starting five who received the most playing time last year left the Bonnies program for other schools (I think it’s reasonable to assume why…). Schmidt replaced those slots on his roster with two players transferring from ACC programs (Quadry Adams from Wake Forest and Abdoul Coulibaly from Pitt). Neither has seen significant action for St. Bonaventure.

Given how this year has taken a turn for the worse, Schmidt’s planning here needs to be questioned. Yes, it worked last year, but last season was unique. St. Bonaventure only played 21 games, including the postseason. This year, the Bonnies are scheduled to play 28 times before the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Last year’s games also came in a three-month window (mid-December to mid-March). This season’s schedule will last at least four months (early November to early March, pending postseason games).

It’s logical to wonder if Schmidt’s starters have worn down during this process. They’ve remained healthy for the most part, but playing that many minutes in a 14-month time frame can be draining. Some numbers back this theory up. The Bonnies defense has taken a step back this season, mostly from allowing 3-point attempts and assisted buckets. St. Bonaventure ranks in the bottom 20 nationally in both of those categories. Is the Bonnies’ defense a step slow?

Beyond that, Schmidt seems to have tied his own hands in terms of maximizing his team’s potential. Every successful coach starts by recruiting good players and fitting them into offensive and defensive schemes that best fit their skills. Throughout the season, those coaches prepare gameplans that have their teams ready to attack every opponent in the best possible way. On gameday, those plans don’t always work out. Great coaches respond with the right play call, a shrewd timeout, or, perhaps most frequently, a lineup change. Schmidt has removed that weapon from his arsenal. Like Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, his team is on the floor.

That is particularly damning given how the Bonnies have performed in the first halves of games. They trailed Northern Iowa by 14 at halftime. St. Bonaventure scored just four points in the final ten minutes of the first half at Dayton. Virginia Tech led the Bonnies 42-20 at the break.

It’s hard to make a halftime adjustment to get back in the game when there is no answer on your bench. There’s no Instant Offense Guy. There’s not a shooter who might get hot. There’s not even the boost of energy-type player to spark something. For Mark Schmidt, there’s basically no bench at all.

That inability to change the pace or create energy raises one last issue with this plan. How does a team with more than a dozen players respond when so few get to contribute? I don’t even just mean how they respond on the court. How do they respond on the bus and in their dorms? This has to affect the culture of a team that is spending so much time together. How does this team have productive practices? When Schmidt installs a new play or concept, the majority of the team knows they will never be on the floor to execute that item. The way he’s been coaching, it would essentially be a waste of time for Schmidt to explain every concept to every player.

There are certainly other reasons this team has hit speed bumps this season. Yet this problem seems too overwhelming to cast aside. Whether the issue lies with a fault in recruiting enough players worthy of seeing the court or with Schmidt’s lack of trust for his bench unit, it’s impossible to escape the reality of this problem.

Schmidt is going to ride the five horses he trusts. This season, that ride has been a bumpy one and won’t be headed to the promised land in March.

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(Header image via Buffalo News)

(Editor’s note: Previous versions of this article included incorrect stats about St. Bonaventure’s trips to the NCAA Tournament and ranking among bench minutes played last season. Hat tip to the keen eyed reader who caught those inaccuracies, which have been corrected)

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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