After dropping their season opener against a more athletic and talented Cincinnati squad, Saint Francis University (SFU) admirably stood toe to toe with the defending Patriot League champions before falling in defeat after Dominique Major’s three-pointer at the buzzer clanged off the back of the rim. It was a difficult loss, considering the Red Flash had three possessions late to either tie or take the lead, but with all things considered, Rob Krimmel wasn’t too disappointed with the final outcome.
“They beat us by about 40 [points] in our place [last season], so to come back to an environment where they hung a banner and there’s a lot of energy and emotion in the building, I give our guys credit for competing for 40 minutes,” Krimmel said after losing a nail-biter to American, 49-46, on Monday evening.
And compete they did. American returned 76% of their possession minutes and everyone of significance from last season’s roster, with the exception of big man Tony Wroblicky. Coming off their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009, most pundits selected the American Eagles as the conference favorite for the 2014-15 season.
The Red Flash weren’t intimidated, embarking in a tight, back-and-forth affair that saw 11 lead changes and five ties. The biggest lead either team held was when American took a six-point advantage with 6:31 left in the second half. Two Jesse Reed free throws capped off a 8-2 Eagle run that could have buried the Red Flash of old, but this group didn’t let up.
Sophomore guard and reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Malik Harmon took charge late in the second half. The considerably leaner Harmon used his quickness and agility to find gaps in American’s stingy defense, and wisely attack the rim. His back-to-back layups in traffic cut American’s advantage to two points, and his 20 points was a game high. But it wasn’t enough, as the rest of the offense around Harmon struggled to produce. No other Red Flash player scored more than seven points in the defeat.
As great as Harmon looked Monday night, there are some concerns offensively with this veteran club. After scoring 21 points on their first 16 possessions (1.31 points per possession), SFU’s offensive attack stalled with just two points and four turnovers in their next 10 possessions (0.20 ppp) to close out the first half. It didn’t get much better in the second half. They struggled to find quality looks after American smartly switched to a smaller, and more guard-oriented lineup. With four guards/wings opposing them, SFU failed to attack gaps with dribble penetration, settling with stagnant ball movement around the perimeter instead. When the three-pointers stopped falling – SFU made five of their first eight long-range attempts – the half-court offense was inefficient.
The starting front court duo of Earl Brown and Ronnie Drinnon combined to collect just nine points (on ten shots) and nine rebounds, as both upperclassmen were constantly harassed with double teams when in possession of the ball. Collectively, the rest of the team sans Harmon made just eight field goals in 28 attempts.
Through two games, the Red Flash have scored a paltry 0.69 points per possession while shooting 34.2% from the floor. They currently have more turnovers (32) than field goals (27) in the young season. As tough as these numbers look, though, they must be taken with a grain of salt given the competition.
“I take blame for the schedule, we’ve played two of the best defensive teams in the country, American and Cincinnati,” Krimmel admitted. “It’s not like we’re playing guys where we [can get away] with not defending. Those guys do such a good job defensively that you have to execute at a championship level, and we’re not there yet.”
While the offense has struggled, it’s been the SFU’s defense that has kept them in these contests early on. Last season a 10-win Red Flash squad finished seventh in NEC defensive efficiency (1.10 ppp) after allowing their conference opponents to make 50.5% of their two-point attempts and 37.5% of their three-point attempts.
Now, Krimmel’s defense appears to be much improved. Despite all of the sharp cuts and crisp ball movement employed by Mike Brennan’s Eagles, the Red Flash did an excellent job staying in front of their opponents and contesting shots. It may only be two games, but SFU has turned its opponents over on an impressive 28.2% of their possessions. And they’ve done by sending their opponents to the free throw line just 21 times.
“I’m pleased with where our defense is,” Krimmel said. “It’s that the guys got older. So when we talk about scouting report, when we talk about rotation…that experience is the biggest thing. As coaches, it gives you confidence to continue to challenge and grow defensively. We can do some different things and not be so plain and vanilla and do things that keep teams off-balance.”
With a team that’s one year older and wiser, Krimmel believes SFU is positioning themselves to compete for a NEC championship. And that’s all the third-year head coach can ask for this early in the season. “I’m really proud of the way our guys battled.”
The Red Flash return to Loretto, PA for two straight home games versus non-Division I opponent Keystone and Maryland Eastern Shore.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride