OLEAN – Mark Schmidt said it not once Saturday, but twice. “There are no moral victories, but ... ”
Yeah, 'but.' I've been around long enough to know that if they insist it's not a moral victory, it's a moral victory. Especially when the coach says it a second time and tells you the loss can be being something to build on.
That's what it has come to, just 10 months after St. Bonaventure made its magical run to the NCAA Tournament. The Bonnies lost at home to Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday, 72-65, and it felt like progress, like a game that might set a staggering team back in the right direction.
Bona had lost four in a row, all by at least 19 points. They hadn't done that in 22 years. When you consider some of the dark days of the program (Tom Chapman, anyone? Anthony Solomon?) that's saying quite a lot. On Saturday, they were trying to avoid a fifth straight loss by 10 or more for the first time in history.
Oh, and VCU, two years removed from a stunning Final Four run and making its first visit to the Reilly Center as a newly minted member of the Atlantic 10, was riding a 10-game winning streak and ranked 24th in the coaches' poll.
So yes, losing by only seven was something of an achievement. That's not a knock on Bona, but a statement of harsh reality. They're just not a very good team anymore, and playing the Rams tough was a notable improvement over their previous four losses.
Junior guard Matthew Wright said the Bonnies had played without heart during those four games. That was a powerful statement, considering that most of the players on the roster had played so courageously last March during Bona's surprising run to the A-10 Tournament title.
“I think at times at Colorado State and N.C. State, we probably didn't play as hard as we should,” Schmidt said. “We say we have to play every possession like it's your last. I think that's what Matthew is talking about. You've got to continue to play hard. You can't get disappointed when teams make runs.”
The Bonnies didn't quit against a deep VCU team that plays a withering full-court press — they call it “Havoc” — and places you under duress for 40 minutes. The Rams are leading the country in steals and turnover margin for a third straight season. Bona got worn down, but it didn't get discouraged.
VCU (14-3) never lost the lead after going up, 15-13, midway through a ragged first half. The Bonnies would cut into the lead, then the Rams, who shot 59 percent in the second half, would counter with a couple of resourceful plays around the basket.
You never got the sense that the Bonnies were going to pull it out. At times, it seemed the only drama was whether they would lose by single digits and avoid a dubious school record. VCU, which had won its league debut against Dayton on Wednesday, wasn't its typically dynamic self.
“Wednesday's game was very emotional for us,” said coach Shaka Smart, who has 98 wins in just his fourth season at VCU. “Our guys did a good job of getting past that. But I do think both teams got tired in the second half.”
The Bonnies made a season-high 11 three-pointers, but they were lost around the hoop. They're not the same team inside without Andrew Nicholson, last year's A-10 player of the year. Nicholson is starting in the NBA for Orlando these days. You don't have to be John Wooden to know they miss him.
Losing Nicholson, their best player since Bob Lanier, was bad enough. Bona dropped two notches in the A-10 this year before playing a game. That's because VCU and Butler, two of the top mid-major programs in the nation, joined the league this season.
The elite programs in college basketball can reload when they lose a star player. They plug in more top recruits and don't miss a beat. You don't reload at St. Bonaventure. You rebuild. As we know, it can take a decade or so.
Despite reaching the NCAA's last year, Bona is the only A-10 team without a recruit committed for next season. That tells you how hard it is to get players to come to Olean. It will be an upset if the Bonnies finish .500 in the league again. They could struggle to simply qualify.
The Bonnies have talent, and players who have performed in big games. But the league is better and they're not keeping up. They lack the sort of big men who block shots and draw double-teams on offense. They don't have a pure point guard. Eric Mosley and Charlon Kloof combined for 11 turnovers.
VCU has won 27, 28 and 29 games in Smart's three seasons as head man. I sense a trend there. This does not look like rebuilding. It looks like the new Gonzaga.
“I fortunately inherited a great program,” Smart said. “Even through some growing pains, our guys really competed. I give these guys credit, they really battled and helped us win those games.”
Yes, and Bona doesn't have enough of them. That's why losing by seven at the Reilly Center can be something to build on, or rebuild. That's why VCU can be new to the A-10, and still seem like it's in another league.