It’s that time of the year again. I’ve begun the process of researching each NEC program in order to write all 10 team previews for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. Last week I spoke with Saint Francis University coach Rob Krimmel. We discussed his 2016-17 roster, their prospects heading into next season, and the unfortunate 6-game slide that ruined what was turning into a noteworthy season.
In mid February, the Red Flash were 13-11 overall and atop the NEC in a first place tie at 9-4. They had an 11-point lead midway through the second half at Mount St. Mary’s. And then the wheels came off. SFU were the victims of Mount Mayhem (completely understandable, especially when on the road), losing that contest down the stretch and depriving the Red Flash of an opportunity to stand alone in first place.
Even worse, the team proceeded to drop their next five contests to close out the season. In five of those final six losses, the Red Flash had a legitimate chance to win each of those games. Case in point:
- Mount St. Mary’s (road) – Led 52-41 with 8:20 left (89% probability according to KenPom)
- St. Franics Brooklyn (home) – Trailed 39-38 with ~15 minutes left (59% probability)
- LIU Brooklyn (home) – Led 79-76 with 1 minute left (92% probability)
- Sacred Heart (road) – Tied at 65 all with 9 minutes left (36% probability)
- FDU (road playoff game) – Led 71-68 with 2:30 left (70% probability)
What a brutal swing! To lose every single game above is such a cruel twist of bad luck, poor execution late, and perhaps a sign of tired legs?
Here was Altoona Mirror basketball writer Cory Giger’s #HotTake! back in March:
What should be maddeningly frustrating to Saint Francis is a realization that every member of the basketball program certainly has, which is: This Red Flash team was good enough to have been the Northeast Conference’s representative in the NCAA Tournament.
But there’s simply no other way to describe what happened to the Flash late in the season.
For those of you who wince at the word “choke,” especially when discussing college athletics, there’s just no getting around it in this case.
With 9 minutes to go at Mount St. Mary’s on Feb. 13, SFU led by 10. Had the Flash held on, they would have been 10-4 and in sole possession of first place in the NEC.
They blew that lead and lost. Then lost again, at home. Then again, at home. Then again. Then again.
Ah yes, the Red Flash choked. That must be it! A team led by three battled-tested seniors in Ronnie Drinnon, Ben Millaud-Meunier, and Greg Brown simply choked away an opportunity to give the program its first NEC championship since 1991. A core of veterans who had previously won two conference playoff games on the road, suddenly could no longer perform in the clutch? According to Giger, all those late leads evaporated because everyone in the program didn’t have the gumption to execute their game plan as the clock moved closer to 0:00. Right.
Not once did Giger mention the Red Flash’s mounting injuries in his piece. Point guard Malik Harmon was essentially a shell of his former self for much of the season, admirably competing with a twice torn labrum since December. His two-point field goal percentage (35%) plummeted in league play as a result and he wasn’t nearly as effective in setting up his teammates (17.3% assist rate last season, compared to 20.3% the season prior) as he had been in the past.
6-foot-6 forward Basil Thompson was hampered by a sprained ankle. His game minutes were in flux, forcing Krimmel to be without one of his best athletes and creators off the bounce.
Then there was freshman Isaiah Blackmon, the recipient of the NEC Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week in the same period. The dynamic shooting guard tore an ACL in his knee versus Bryant on Feb. 4 and was lost for the season. All of these setbacks greatly reduced SFU’s depth and placed an unfair burden on Milluad-Meunier and, especially, Brown down the final stretch.
“I think the guy that was impacted the most (by a depleted rotation) was Greg Brown,” Krimmel said. “He had to be a point guard, a perimeter scorer and our best defender all wrapped up into one and I just think it caught up with him.”
Blackmon’s absence from the rotation was the most noteworthy given the freshman’s ability to generate offense without the reliance of a set play. His prowess on slashing and finishing around the rim (64.6% on shots near the rim) and his defensive versatility was invaluable to Krimmel’s team. There’s a reason why SFU was 2-8 in NEC contests when Blackmon was on the sideline and 7-2 when he was active. Courtesy of John Templon, the efficiency numbers below indicate these records with and without the freshman guard were far from a fluke:
- With Blackmon on the floor: SFU scored 108.9 points per 100 possessions, SFU opponents scored 99.0 points per 100 possession
- With Blackmon off the floor: SFU scored 105.3 points per 100 possessions, SFU opponents scored 111.0 points per 100 possessions
It’s clear he was a tremendous asset, especially on the defensive end where the Red Flash were 12 points per 100 possessions better! His ability to guard multiple positions and reek havoc by forcing turnovers on the perimeter was essential in making SFU one of the league’s better defensive teams. Without him however, SFU would’ve had the second worst defensive efficiency in league play, ahead of only the 4-25 Central Connecticut Blue Devils.
All this information was lost in Giger’s hot take, though. He instead chose to focus on how three seniors came up short and that the burden should, perhaps unfairly, fall on the SFU head coach entering his fifth season at the helm.
If anything, the coaching staff should be lauded for keeping the team in it until the very end. His players fought and kept themselves competitive in nearly every game down the stretch. Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda, whose team was on the ropes in the NEC quarterfinals to the battered Red Flash, knows this very well.
“That was a great college basketball game that really we were fortunate (to win),” Herenda said when asked about that do-or-die game. “That’s what happens when you win a championship; there’s always one game you go back to and you’re like ‘Oh my God how did we win that?’ And that night we were fortunate.”
“Rob is a great coach. I have a ton of respect for those guys.”
Maybe deep down Giger believes that Krimmel is an excellent coach too, but calling the coach and his team a bunch of chokers is an unfair, silly narrative that ignores the circumstances the Red Flash had to encounter.
With a talent gap that’s rather thin between NEC teams one through eight, staying injury free is almost essential in making a legitimate run at the NCAA Tournament. The top two teams in the conference, Wagner and FDU, were able to stay relatively healthy. And unfortunately for Krimmel, the injuries to Blackmon, Harmon, and Thompson were too much to overcome and put a premature end to a season that could’ve been quite special for the Loretto community.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride