Giger: Krimmel has Red Flash on rise by finding, luring more quality players

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LORETTO — The Saint Francis men’s basketball program has almost always, even during its leanest years, had one or two really good players.

The problem, though, is that there usually was a significant dropoff in the team’s talent after those one or two guys. The Red Flash lost a lot of games for a lot of years, and of their many issues, the most glaring was that they were pretty close to hopeless on the road.

Fifth-year head coach Rob Krimmel has done an exceptional job of changing Saint Francis’ fortunes in those two key areas.

If you haven’t trekked up the mountain for a few years to check out the Red Flash, you’d probably be very pleasantly surprised with the team’s overall level of talent. Krimmel has put together an impressive young roster that includes five starters who are all really good, plus a bench that’s deeper than SFU has had in decades.

Despite being one of the youngest teams in the country, the Flash enjoyed a strong regular season that saw them finish tied for third in the Northeast Conference with an 11-7 record. They are the No. 4 seed in the league tournament, and Wednesday night they’ll host their first conference tourney game in 26 years when Bryant visits DeGol Arena.

As everyone here knows, Saint Francis is kind of in the middle of nowhere on the Loretto mountains. It’s not exactly a hopping place for college kids, so it’s long been a tough sell trying to lure a high number of quality men’s basketball players.

Krimmel has been able to do just that.

“Whether you’re at Saint Francis or Duke or Pitt or St. John’s, it’s about fit,” Krimmel said. “Our staff has done a tremendous job of identifying kids who not only are good basketball players, but are great fits for this university.”

What makes for a great fit?

“Some of it is that maybe they want to get away and grow up a little bit, get away from home and learn to compete both on and off the court,” Krimmel said. “Some of it is the opportunity to play Division I basketball.

“Saint Francis isn’t for everybody, just like St. Francis New York being in the city isn’t for everybody. The staff has done a good job of identifying kids that want to be here, the two-feet in kids. We don’t make many promises. We don’t promise playing time. We promise an opportunity to get a great education and an opportunity to compete at the Division I level.”

Krimmel played at Saint Francis, and so did two of his assistants, Eric Taylor and Umar Shannon. They know what it’s like to be a student-athlete at SFU, so once they’ve identified players who are good enough, the next step is convincing them to come.

While it’s true that a lot of kids wouldn’t want to go to a small school on a snowy mountain in Pennsylvania, that is exactly what some young basketball players are looking for. Saint Francis has long had a great tradition of recruiting from big cities across the country, going back more than 60 years to the program’s heyday.

Sophomore guard Isaiah Blackmon, the team’s best player, is from Charlotte. Sophomore forward Josh Nebo came all the way from Houston. Senior guard Malik Harmon, who’s sitting out the season with an injury, is from Queens.

Sophomore guard Jamaal King, who played alongside Maryland’s Melo Trimble in high school, is from Maryland. King starts along with Blackmon and Nebo, and they are joined by two freshmen: Keith Braxton from new Jersey and Randall Gaskins Jr. from Virginia.

Braxton leads the team in scoring (13.1) and should be Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year. He had offers from Columbia and New Hampshire but decided to come to Saint Francis, and he looks like he will have an outstanding career.

“I took a visit in the summer, and the coaches were great, I loved the campus,” Braxton said. “I just felt the trust between myself and the players that I met.”

Gaskins wasn’t offered a scholarship by any other Division I or Division II school. Yet here he is, starting as a freshman for a good team and averaging 8.3 points.

“Yeah, I feel like they overlooked me,” Gaskins said of other schools. “I feel like I just slipped through the cracks. My high school coach said I’m a big sleeper, so I was happy this school offered me.”

A big reason for Saint Francis’ success this season has been winning six road games in conference, a new program record. To put that in perspective, even the NCAA Tournament team in 1991 only won five road games in league play.

If the Flash can get past Bryant at home on Wednesday, they’ll likely have to win two road games to win the NEC Tournament and advance to the Big Dance. The young players on this team don’t seem to be fazed by playing on the road — they even gave Marquette fits earlier this season — so the Flash appear to have as good of a chance as they’ve had in a long time of winning the NEC.

As Krimmel pointed out, there’s so little separation between all the teams still playing in the NEC at this point, so it will come down to who wants it most, who plays the hardest and who comes through in the clutch.

Whatever happens in this tournament, the Flash have an outstanding nucleus of young talent and should be a force to be reckoned with in the NEC the next few years.

Krimmel has proven to be a terrific talent evaluator and acquirer, and if the players in the program make the expected improvements in the coming years, Saint Francis finally could end its long NCAA Tournament drought.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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