The realization came to Mark Schmidt in March of 2000. Schmidt, at the time an assistant at Xavier, was on the bus back to the Buffalo Airport. St. Bonaventure had just trimmed the Musketeers 65-64 when soon-to-be NBA star David West missed a shot at the buzzer.
Thinking about the game, Schmidt commented to then Xavier head coach, Skip Prosser, “I have played in Madison Square Garden. I have played in the Carrier Dome. That’s the loudest place I have ever played.”
Seven years later the St. Bonaventure job became available. Schmidt called his late mentor and asked him for his thoughts. Prosser reminded him of that bus ride to Buffalo.
“Remember what you told me?” Schmidt recalled of the advice. “It’s been down for four or five years. You can bring it back, and if you ever brought it back, that environment could be turned.”
“That’s what has happened,” Schmidt commented. “The community and the students have been tremendous in their support. There’s nothing like it when we have a full house. We don’t have 13,000. We have 6,000. It’s electric.”We have a commitment from the community and the university.”
Evidence of that electricity came last February when Duquesne visited the Reilly Center. The Dukes brought with them an 11-game winning streak including seven Atlantic 10 triumphs for share of first place in the conference.
The Bonnies rallied late, and a Michael Davenport three at the buzzer set off a wild celebration as the Bonnies beat the Dukes 64-62.
“There’s a commitment from the community and the university to men’s basketball,” Schmidt explained. “The average fan, that is not a big basketball fan, those people have no idea what the Reilly Center is to Bonaventure or to college basketball. Basketball is everything in Olean. You saw it first hand at the Duquesne game. You can’t get a better environment. You may get a bigger venue, but you’re not going to get a more lively college environment than the Reilly Center.”
ESPN’s Jay Bilas called the Reilly Center one of the five most hostile environment’s in college basketball. Opposing teams are greeted by the student body whose section is at court-level.
“When they talk about going to the game,” Schmidt continued when discussing the community. “It’s not the Sabres game or the Knicks game. It’s one game. It’s Bonaventure basketball.”
Senior Da’Quan Cook has seen the transformation first hand.
“It’s been a long journey,” Cook said when asked about St. Bonaventure’s trip from seven wins in 2007 to the present time. “It’s been a huge turnaround. We definitely put in the time and effort. We’ve had our bumps and bruises, but we overcame that.”
The senior smiled when asked if he feels sorry for opposing teams who have to deal with the raucous student section.
“Not at all. It’s our court.”
With their recent successes Schmidt and the Bonnies will have to make some adjustments. When he took the job five years ago, the Bonnies had just three scholarship players. They start this season with double-digit scholarship athletes.
“It’s great to have depth,” Schmidt mentioned. “But you also have to have guys that are pulling for each other. You can’t be on the bench hoping that the guy that’s playing in your position screws up. That’s going to be a really big key for us.”
That sacrifice will begin with the four the starters who return to Schmidt’s lineup.
“Last year those kids knew that no matter if they played well, or if they played badly, they were going to play,” Schmidt said of Cook, Demtrius Conger, Davenport and Andrew Nicholson. “We were lucky to have kids that were self-motivated.”
Schmidt stressed the importance of the team’s chemistry.
“Can those guys that played 35 minutes accept 25? Can they sacrifice their minutes, their points, theirs shots? And do it for the betterment of the team.”
The Bonnies start the season ranked fourth in the preseason Atlantic 10 poll.
“It’s great. It’s a tribute to our players, and the hard work they have put in,” Schmidt said of the pre-season poll. “But it doesn’t mean anything to us. We’ve got to go out there and play.”
The Bonnies are led by senior forward Nicholson who earned a spot on both the preseason Wooden and Naismith award watch lists for player-of-the year.
“It’s all motivation,” Nicholson said of the recognition. “My goal is the NCAA tournament.”
The Bonnies season opens tonight when the Cornell Big Red visit the Reilly Center.
Last season in Ithaca, the Bonnies came from behind to defeat the Big Red, 56-54. Conger scored 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Nicholson notched a double-double with 19 points and 10 boards. The Bonnies overcame an 11-point second half deficit with a 13-2 run to defeat host Cornell.
A 7 p.m. tipoff is scheduled for tonight’s opener.