34 Previews in 34 Days: Saint Francis University

Saint Francis University

Outlook: For the first time in Rob Krimmel’s coaching career, both as the head coach and as an assistant, the Red Flash are the decided favorite of the 2017-18 season. Replacing defensive stalwart Josh Nebo looms large as Krimmel boasts the deepest collection of guards and wings in the league.

Last Year: 17-17 overall, 11-7 (4th in NEC)

Who’s in: Markus Vallien (G); Luidgy Laporal (C); Mark Flagg (PF)

Who’s out: Josh Nebo (PF); Georgios Angelou (G); Patrick Wrencher (PF); Ifeanyi Umezurike (PF)

Key Non-Conference games: at San Francisco (11/13); vs Lehigh (12/21)

To put it bluntly, it may be a while before another defensive player like Josh Nebo comes around. The junior was a terror in the paint for opposing frontcourts last season, posting the best block rate in league play (9.7%) while making the Red Flash unquestionably better when he was on the floor. HIs presence alone allowed Krimmel to instruct Nebo’s teammates to play more aggressive and loose and it gave Keith Braxton, the reigning NEC rookie of the year, the ability to conserve energy on the defensive side of the ball.

Without Nebo, Saint Francis U would’ve dropped to one of the worst defensive clubs in the league from an efficiency standpoint. All this makes the upcoming season fascinating, because in a typical year, Nebo’s transfer to Texas A&M would drop the Red Flash a few spots from the top perch.

This isn’t your typical offseason, however, with other expected favorites in Mount St. Mary’s, Fairleigh Dickinson and LIU Brooklyn losing more production, at least on paper, than the Red Flash. As a result, Saint Francis U will likely be at the top of the NEC coach’s preseason poll later this afternoon, but this was kind of by default more than anything.

Also of notable importance: Georgios Angelou’s graduation removes a wily veteran presence who’s versatility (he played the 1 and 2), long range shooting prowess (37.4% 3PT) and leadership was valued. Several opposing NEC coaches expressed that sentiment to me over the offseason. Luckily for Krimmel, there’s a deep collection of unique talent at the 1, 2 and 3 for the Red Flash; therefore replacing Angelou won’t be as challenging as it will be for Nebo

Before digging deeper into the SFU rotation, let’s peruse the Red Flash depth chart as we know it:

  • PG: King, Harmon, Vallien
  • G: Blackmon, Wolford
  • G: Gaskins, Meredith
  • F: Braxton, Flagg
  • Kuzavas, Laporal, Wallace

The program led the league and was 44th nationally in 3-point shooting (38.1%) and it’s fair to expect more of the same on the offensive end. Yes, losing the aforementioned Angelou is a hit, yet the return of red-shirt senior Malik Harmon gives Krimmel another cagey veteran who knows how to run an offense. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of role Harmon is given – will he simply share point guard duties with King, or will he be featured a little more off-the-ball, in the way Angelou was presented during his senior year.

King’s talent is undeniable; in fact, when the junior posted at least five assists in a game last season, the Red Flash were 8-2 versus league opponents. He had a tendency to illustrate inconsistency last campaign, but for all intents and purposes last season was King’s true rookie season. A jump in maturity and production is certainly reasonable.

While figuring out how to deploy King and Harmon will be a big question, there’s no denying the star of the backcourt is Isaiah Blackmon. When the athletic junior plays at least 20 minutes in a game, his team is 17-7 over the past 2 seasons in NEC play. His influence and versatility on the defensive end (2.7% steal rate), along with his ability to score anywhere on the floor, makes him one of the best two-way players in the league.

Speaking of two-way players, Randall Gaskins was considerably underrated as a rookie, yet Krimmel considers the 6-3 wing the best perimeter defender on the team despite his underclassmen status. There may not be enough touches on the offensive end to morph out of the “3 and D” role he had as a freshman, yet he’ll still provide value nonetheless.

Backing up Blackmon and Gaskins will likely be the sharpshooting combination of Andre Wolford – walk-on turned scholarship player – and Scott Meredith. Both, in the eyes of Krimmel and his staff, are wonderful 3-point shooters, but there may only be one spot off the bench if the remainder of the backcourt stays healthy. It’s a good problem to have of course; Krimmel can simply ride the hot hand if he’s looking for instant offense off the bench.

Manning the four is the undersized Braxton, who was brilliant as a rookie last season. The sophomore led all NCAA freshman in rebounding for 2016-17, a remarkable feat given his 6-4 stature. The point forward will be expected to emerge as a top five talent, although it’ll be interesting to see how much of Nebo’s presence benefited the New Jersey native. Even if there’s an adjustment, it’s foolish to expect much of a drop-off – Braxton is simply one of the best, multifaceted offensive talents in the league at the moment.

Lastly, sophomore Deivydas Kuzavas is the favorite to absorb minutes at the five. There’s no denying the Red Flash’s ability to develop talent down low, but this will be the biggest challenge of Krimmel’s young coaching career – how exactly do you replace a star in Nebo? Look for Kuzavas and junior college transfer Luidgy Laporal to split the playing time at the five.

Kuzavas has comfort on the perimeter, whereas Laporal is easily the most polished post man the Red Flash have. Laporal averaged close to a double double last season, and there’s a buzz that the first junior college signee of Krimmel’s tenure will wisely utilize a soft touch around the basket. Also down low is freshman Mark Flagg, yet he profiles more as a stretch forward, who can push Braxton to the three when he’s in the game.

In all, there’s a wonderful amount of talent on the team. Is it enough to get the Red Flash back to the Big Dance, a feat that has eluded the program since 1991? Given the state of the league, this is as good a chance as any, although the scary part of all of this is that Krimmel will only graduate one player before embarking on the 2018-19 season. Saint Francis University is set up to thrive for the next couple of seasons.

The massive rebuild Krimmel first encountered has come completely full circle.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride. Ryan wrote all ten NEC previews as well as the Iona, Manhattan and St. Peter’s preview for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. Reserve your copy of the college basketball “bible” here.

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