Sophomore guard J.R. Bremer need not look any farther than the marquee at his local McDonald's to see how the local citizenry has latched on to the St. Bonaventure men's basketball team. Beneath the golden arches reads a sentiment echoed by many in the small New York town of Olean: "Go Bonnies."
St. Bonaventure (12-3, 4-1 Atlantic 10), in town tonight to play George Washington, is off to its best start in 30 years.
"I didn't see that last year," Bremer said of the restaurant's proclamation, the type of sentiment that popped up outside many Olean businesses after Bremer buried a three-point shot with 2.8 seconds left to beat Temple, 57-56, on Jan. 15. "Everybody in town is excited."
Despite the weather, the 7:30 p.m. game is on, even if yesterday's storm forced a change of travel plans for the Bonnies. Scheduled to fly into Washington yesterday, the team boarded a bus about 4 p.m. to make the 350-mile drive to Washington.
St. Bonaventure, in a snowy southwestern New York community of 17,000 and on a campus with just 2,850 students, is accustomed to loyal fan support, and knocking off the then-No. 20 Owls marked the fourth time in six years the Bonnies had beaten Temple in Olean.
But the latest win over Temple not only came in an alumni weekend thriller played in front of the second-largest crowd in the history of the 6,000-seat Reilly Center, it punctuated a string of impressive wins that included victories over North Carolina-Charlotte, Colorado State and Southern California.
That list of conquests has prompted a sellout for Saturday's home game against Rhode Island, and other games are on the verge of selling out, an athletic department spokesman said.
All this has followers wondering if an NCAA bid, which would be the school's first since the Final Four heyday of Bob Lanier in 1970, might be in the offing. A No. 16 ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index indicates that it might be.
But for now, Coach Jim Baron, who played on the 1977 St. Bonaventure team that won the National Invitation Tournament title, will hear of no such talk.
"I know how fragile [the record] is," said Baron, who is 179-183 as head coach, with no NCAA appearances and one NIT win, during his St. Bonaventure tenure. "You know there are good teams out there, and you can't get too high or too low."
The Bonnies, who returned four starters off a 14-15 team, learned that lesson Saturday in a 66-60 loss at Fordham in a game they led by 10 with less than seven minutes to play. The loss snapped a six-game winning streak, the school's longest in 17 years.
There are several reasons for the 12-3 record. Six players average 8.3 points or more, and the team is shooting a league-leading 45.7 percent from the floor (yet just 64.8 percent from the foul line). Three seniors start, including point guard Tim Winn, a Naismith Award candidate who leads the league in steals and ranks in four other categories. Center Caswell Cyrus could become the first player in A-10 history to lead the league in blocks for four years. Six-foot-11 Peter Van Paassen averages 7.5 rebounds.
The Bonnies have greatly improved last season's league-worst 25.8 percent three-point shooting, and no three-pointer this season was more important than Bremer's bomb from deep in the right corner against Temple, the Bonnies' 13th of the game in 27 attempts. Baron attributes much of the turnaround to patience on offense. Bremer believes the shooters are more confident, though he had his doubts when launching his game-winner with 6-9 Kevin Lyde homing in on him.
"I thought it would be an air ball or go in, because I had to put a lot of arc on it," said Bremer, whose jumper capped a 14-point second-half comeback. The arena was so boisterous, Bremer said he and his teammates had to communicate by hand signals.
Some fans expect such miracles every game, what with players named David Messiah Capers and Vidal Massiah on the roster. The tired joke around town is: "Two messiahs at a Catholic University? How can you lose?"
The Bonnies are not likely to spend much time looking heavenward today. They are jaded when it comes to snow. Told yesterday morning there were eight inches or so on the ground in the Washington area, Baron was undaunted.
"That's just another hour up here," he said.