“I hope I don’t come across as being arrogant, but our goal is to win the Northeast Conference championship. Why put the uniform on if everything you do isn’t geared toward winning a championship?”
Those were the words of Saint Francis University’s newest head coach when asked about his team’s expectations heading into the 2012-13 season.
You can’t help but admire the young coach’s confidence and swagger, yet that proclamation didn’t seem (and wasn’t) realistic coming off several seasons of perpetual mediocrity and the untimely transfer of future star Scott Eatherton.
Three years later, however, times have clearly changed for Rob Krimmel. These days his Red Flash are at the top of the RPI and KenPom rankings when compared to the rest of their Northeast Conference peers. With virtually everyone back in a league that experienced copious amounts of turnover, SFU has rallied to post a 6-4 non-conference record — after going a combined 7-43 versus non-conference adversaries in the three seasons prior — with impressive wins over the likes of Albany, Duquesne, and Rutgers. SFU’s most recent victory over Rutgers was the first time a NEC school had ever defeated a Big Ten team, giving the league its most significant victory since Robert Morris stunned Kentucky in the first round of the 2013 NIT.
The three-game winning streak, which has catapulted the Red Flash into the KenPom top 150 for the first time in program history, has been entirely possible because of their league leading defense, according to Krimmel.
“It’s experience and certainly guys buying into our ability to defend,” Krimmel explained when asked about his team’s stark improvement. “So when we go through a scouting report, we have guys who really take ownership in the scouting report and prepare. This year we have a lot more depth so our practices are a lot more competitive as we prepare for scouting reports.”
The Red Flash find themselves in unchartered territory. Only once this century has the program finished inside the top 200 in defensive efficiency, yet the Red Flash are currently ranked 92nd nationally, allowing just 96.7 points per 100 possessions. The veteran club is doing it with the implementation of tough on-ball defense, not allowing opponents to beat them with the long-range jumper. With a bevy of solid perimeter defenders like Malik Harmon, Ollie Jackson, and co-captain Greg Brown, considered by many inside the program as the SFU’s best perimeter defender, opponents have converted just 31.6% of their three-point attempts.
“We have guys that can guard the ball and limit dribble penetration,” Krimmel said. “That’s a big part of our three-point defense. [Players are also] rotating and allowing those close-outs to be closer… We can get to and contest more three-point shots.”
Because of the terrific power forward duo of Earl Brown (6.6 rpg) and Ronnie Drinnon (6.7 rpg) anchoring the middle, the Red Flash aren’t allowing opponents to grab many of those misses either. Brown and Drinnon both reside in the NEC top five for rebounding, and it’s a major reason why SFU is grabbing more than 71% of the available defensive rebounds.
In their last two victories over in-state rival Duquesne and Rutgers, for example, SFU won the rebounding margin over the bigger rosters by a combined 19 caroms, while limiting them to just 17 second-chance points.
And that’s if the opponent could even get a shot off during the possession. For the season, SFU has turned opponents over on 22% of their possessions, up significantly from 17.5% a season prior. They are doing it without sending their adversaries to the line much, with a 29.2% free throw rate, a mark good enough to sneak into the top 50 in all of Division I basketball.
The offense, on the other hand, hasn’t been terribly impressive, scoring 98.1 points per 100 possessions, yet it has been opportunist and, for the lack of a better word, clutch. The Red Flash’s come-from-behind victory over Rutgers and their near comeback versus Lehigh, when they were trailing by as much as 18 points, is certainly evidence of that.
“Guys don’t get rattled,” Krimmel said. “That’s really a credit of Earl Brown and Greg Brown, our captains. We guys who have been though situations that are not new to them. It helps when you have experienced guys.”
Being able to score in spurts is also a testament to the Red Flash’s group of excellent perimeter scorers. After sinking just 32.0% of their three-point attempts last season, Krimmel’s group now boasts six regulars who have sunk at least one-third of their long-range jumpers. It’s a major reason why SFU can never be considered out of game, even if the lead ballons to double figures.
For a team that ranks 332th nationally in adjusted height, knocking down the three-point jumper will always remain a critical part of SFU’s success moving forward. “It is part of the strategy,” Krimmel admitted. “It’s a weapon when you have multiple guys who can make shots. You have to use it and guys are shooting the ball really well.”
There remains several things the coaching staff will continue to worry about heading into NEC play — the frontcourt depth and executing for 40 straight minutes, for instance — but this Red Flash group appears to be for real. Earning six non-conference victories, with a chance at their seventh tonight versus NJIT, versus the 67th most difficult schedule in college basketball isn’t a fluke.
And in a conference loaded with uncertainty that relies mostly on the production of its underclassmen, Krimmel can go to battle with the only team that returned 100% of their possession minutes from last season. That experience and newfound defensive stoutness could push SFU to their first NCAA tournament berth since 1991.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride