St. Francis Brooklyn Clear NEC Favorite, Finally Its Time?

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” – Andy Dufresne

Hope does spring eternal and all that, but many times rather than fully being allowed to blossom, we temper it, knowing that it may be a false alarm, a mirage, a ruse designed to play to our emotions before cruelly disappearing like a Snapchat photo (is supposed to at least).

With another rather convincing 83-66 win over Staten Island rival Wagner (its second in five days), St. Francis Brooklyn has cemented itself as the clear favorite in the NEC as we head down the homestretch. The Terriers have won 17 of 21 games, now have a two-game lead on the rest of the field (with an 11-2 NEC record), currently hold the tiebreaker on the nearest competitor Bryant, and have their next three games as heavy favorites at home.

They are 57 KenPom spots higher than their nearest conference competitor (147th to Robert Morris’ 204th), a number that probably should be higher based on current form considering that the Terriers (17-9) started 0-5 and were 3-7 after a somewhat puzzling home loss to Delaware St. (you may remember Amere May scored 48 of the Hornets’ 72 points that day, still a Division I high this season).

St. Francis Brooklyn also features the likely conference Player of the Year in senior Jalen Cannon, who appears to be playing his best ball as his storied career draws to a close (he has at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in five of his last six games), as well as senior point guard Brent Jones, a floor leader who ranks in the top 100 nationally in assist and steal rate.

In short, this is the Terriers’ year. And major New York City news outlets have taken notice because it’s a wonderful story. Little St. Francis Brooklyn playing in their tiny gym at a school in Brooklyn Heights without a real campus. But a school with so much basketball history, New York City basketball history, none of which involves an NCAA Tournament berth in nearly eight decades.

All the articles hang on big posters outside the school. The student section, normally not even large enough to pull the bleachers at the Pope Center out all the way, was full 30 minutes before tip Thursday night. Alumni are wearing as much St. Francis Brooklyn gear as they can on the streets and in the subways. The student lounge is buzzing. The five buildings that make up the campus are full of basketball talk.

This is it, right? It has to be it? Even the vanquished opponents think so.

“I think they have guys that really want it,” Wagner coach Bashir Mason said. “I saw with Brent Jones and I tried to make him an example for my guys. I think the last game against us, he was 1-of-6 from the field and he only had six points, but Jalen Cannon had it going, and so he never looked like ‘I need to join this party’. He had a real solid game, ran the show, and he didn’t need to score. It just seems like they all really know their roles. I said this to my staff, I’ve been in this league for five years and seen four different champions and I think that team is better than the four champions I’ve seen.”

While St. Francis Brooklyn coach Glenn Braica certainly has inner confidence in his team, particularly in his senior leaders, he knows how fast things can turn in this business.

“The school’s excited, they’re doing a good job promoting, and we appreciate that,” Braica, in his perfect Brooklyn accent, said. “But we’re not paying any attention to it, to be honest. And it’s not for lack of gratitude. It’s because I know the trap you can fall into if you start thinking about stuff like that. We have to crank it up and be focused every day and be ready to play or we’re going to get beat.”

If we were directing a made-for-TV movie, of course, SFC would win. But, even assuming the Terriers get home court advantage (and there is a very good chance), it won’t be easy. Consider that there is a chance that Wagner could be the No. 8 seed that St. Francis Brooklyn sees in the NEC quarterfinals, and the Seahawks – after getting down 14 early – exposed what could become an Achilles’ heel for the Terriers, their lack of shooting ability.

To be fair, the Terriers are currently second in the NEC in eFG% (52.4%) and second in three-point shooting (35.6%), but when Wagner went to a zone, St. Francis Brooklyn missed 17 of 20 shots at one point and the Seahawks came all the way back to take a brief second-half lead.

“I thought Bashir did a good thing with the zone,” Braica said. “It took us a little while to adjust. Then we got up and they had to go back man. I thought our guys made plays to get us some separation which helps. Jalen hit some big shots, Amdy (Fall) was good inside, and our guards did a good job of handling the ball.”

It was at that point where Cannon started to take over, both with his improved outside shooting and his rebounding ability. St. Francis Brooklyn – 17th nationally in offensive rebounding (37.6%) – got back 19 of its misses for a 47.5% offensive rebounding rate and forced Wagner to foul them 26 times, eventually wearing them down.

Many of the current stories on St. Francis Brooklyn omit how close it was to removing itself from the ignominious list of teams that have been Division I since its inception in 1939 and have never danced with the rest of the Cinderellas (William & Mary – who also has a good chance to remove itself this season, Northwestern, Army, and The Citadel make up the rest of the list).

One guy who doesn’t forget is Ron Ganulin, who coached the Terriers for 15 mostly successful years, and decided to come back under Glenn Braica as an assistant (Ganulin was also an assistant on the 1990 UNLV national champs, which were coached by legendary Jerry Tarkanian, who died earlier this week). The same principles that applied this year were in place back then.  St. Francis Brooklyn had a 20-point second half lead against Monmouth in 2001 but it fell apart, and back then, they didn’t even get an NIT bid to fall back on.

Ganulin and the Terriers were also 16-4 in the NEC in 1998-99, 12-6 the next season, and 12-6 again in 2003-04. Braica was 12-6 in 2011-12 before losing to Quinnipiac in the NEC Tournament. Then, of course, there was last year’s semifinals where Mount St. Mary’s stormed back to take St. Francis Brooklyn out. Again.

The law of averages is with them this time around. Probabilities and public sentiment dictate that the Terriers will get to display the Pope P.E. Center on national television and see their name called on Selection Sunday.

Stop, stop, stop, Braica says. It’s February 12th. Dreams and egos should stay exactly where they are. Seven other NEC teams (sadly, FDU and Central Connecticut are both virtually eliminated) don’t give two you-know-whats about destiny or history or public sentiment or even a possible regular season championship.

“They’ve been got about not getting caught up in it,” Braica said. “We’re not caught up in anything. All we’re worried about is shootaround tomorrow and whatever practice is next. We have to stay focused. Sacred Heart is next, and we have to take it one game at a time. You can’t get ahead of yourself. I know some people are excited, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

And that is the cruel Division I one-bid college basketball world we live in.

But dreams do come true sometimes, don’t they? Good things happen to good people (and Braica and Ganulin certainly qualify in that category)? Once in a while?

We’ll know on March 10.

Maybe, just maybe, this guy will be doing this dance on CBS the week after.

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