Down 11 points with 9:33 remaining in the Northeast Conference (NEC) quarterfinals, it was shaping up to be another ho-hum season for Saint Francis University basketball. There was some progress worth highlighting, but a 9-21 final record would’ve given the Red Flash four straight seasons of failing to reach ten wins, and 23 consecutive years of falling short of the NEC semifinals.
But then, the comeback in Smithfield, Rhode Island began to take shape. Despite being saddled with four fouls late, Ronnie Drinnon continued to be disruptive around the rim, finishing with a career high 20 points and 18 rebounds while holding Alex Francis to just seven points on 3-6 shooting. Malik Harmon provided a steady hand at the point. Dominique Major hit a couple of timely threes. Against all odds, the Red Flash had quieted Bryant’s raucous crowd when they improbably grabbed a one-point lead with less than a minute remaining.
When Corey Maynard’s open look at the top of the key — the final shot of his college career — rimmed out, the Red Flash had won their first NEC postseason game since 1995 and their first playoff road game in a whopping 25 years.
A few days later, the Red Flash put a legitimate scare into heavily favored Robert Morris before dropping their 14th straight game to the Colonials, 60-57.
Because of two down-to-the-wire nail-biters, the 2014-15 season expectations for Saint Francis have been recalibrated, and subsequently, elevated to a level this program hasn’t been accustomed to in a long time. Had Saint Francis gone quietly in the quarterfinals, many wouldn’t have pegged the Red Flash as a rising, upper tier program in the NEC, especially considering last season’s 1-15 mark versus teams in the RPI top 200. Now, some pundits consider them a contender for the NEC championship.
What a difference two games in March can make.
“It’s got to be about progress,” Krimmel explained after his team returned from their European trip last month. “You want things forward moving, moving in the right direction. And certainly we felt like we took a step forward as a program winning a road playoff game … And I think us going up and beating Bryant added to that belief of ‘Hey we can do this.’”
Progress and a belief in winning are always key attributes cited for a rebuilding team showing signs of improvement. The team is making strides, so to speak, and that’s the buzz regarding Krimmel and his program as he enters his pivotal third season as the head coach.
With the ever-changing climate of the NEC around them, Saint Francis returns nearly all of its roster from last season. Over 94% of their returning possession minutes will suit up for the 2014-15 campaign, while the next closest team (Central Connecticut State) returns 82%. For someone prescribing in the “team chemistry” theory, the Red Flash will be the perfect test case entering an unpredictable conference loaded with parity.
“The best teams get along,” Krimmel said. “The best teams have a chemistry in the locker room that there’s no secret formula to. I think that’s a big part of believing in each other, when you trust the guy next to you. When you have a relationship with that person it makes the belief in each other happen a little quicker.”
As a way to continually build on his team’s chemistry, Saint Francis embarked on an European trip where the Red Flash played four international teams from France and Spain. The results were mixed — they finished the trip with a 2-2 record — but Krimmel didn’t put a ton of stock in the final results, which included a riveting comeback from a 25-point second half deficit.
Most importantly the endeavor allowed the coaching staff to tinker with their rotations, try out different crunch time lineups and push the players with little to no experience. In addition, they had to abide by a 24-second shot clock, and the experience forced the normally slow-tempo Red Flash to pick up the pace.
Of the top returning contributors, there was little surprise with how they performed in Europe. One of the best projected frontcourts of the NEC in Drinnon and Earl Brown scored and rebounded the basketball as expected. Harmon, who shed ten pounds this offseason in an attempt to improve his quickness and ability to attack the rim off the dribble, was solid running the point. The veteran backcourt of Major, Greg Brown, Ben Millaud-Meunier and Stephon Whyatt had their moments.
It was the inexperienced players, however, that the coaching staff had their eyes on. “It was nice to see guys who didn’t see a lot of action last season perform,” Krimmel said.
Sophomore power forward Patrick Wrencher, coming off a season where he played just 11 games, corralled an average of five rebounds per game during the trip. Backup point guard Georgios Angelou logged some valuable minutes.
The incoming freshman class was present as well. Of the group, 6’6” swingman Basil Thompson scored in double figures twice, displaying his terrific athleticism in the open floor. There’s no denying Thompson’s talent, but like the other incoming freshmen forwards in Michael Clark and Daniel Wallace, his offensive game is rather raw. More importantly though, the head coach is pleased with this class as it gives his team some desperately needed depth.
“That was our weakness last year; we had no depth in our frontcourt,” Krimmel explained. “Zero. It was Ronnie and Earl. So in recruiting that was our number one priority, we wanted some depth in the frontcourt.”
With more depth down low, plenty of experience, and heightened expectations, it will be interesting to see how a team mired in mediocrity the past two decades will handle it. Krimmel is certainly cognizant of that, but at the same time, is pleased that his team is moving in the right direction.
“If we weren’t talking about (Saint Francis as a contender), I’d be concerned because now in year three if we aren’t talking about pushing the upper echelon of the conference, I’d be a little worried.”
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride