Flash hot going into tourney

It appears that Saint Francis is playing its best basketball of the season with a five-game winning streak, but coach Rob Krimmel actually had a different take on that.

“I hope we’re not,” he said. “I hope our best is still to come.

“With winning the last five and guys individually performing well and the team coming into the gym having really good practices, I’m pleased with where we are.”

Tonight, the Red Flash will be at home for a first-round Northeast Conference Tournament game against Fairleigh Dickinson at DeGol Arena. Saint Francis is the No. 3 seed and will host the sixth-seeded Knights, whom they beat in both regular-season meetings (74-60 at home and 90-82 on the road six days ago).

There are no bubbles at this level of Division I basketball. No trying to improve NCAA Tournament seeding with good wins.

No, it all comes down to three games for teams such as Saint Francis and its NEC brethren. No matter what’s happened throughout the course of the season — good or bad — the three games in the conference tournament determine these teams’ NCAA fate and place in history.

That doesn’t mean the Flash’s 29 games up to this point have been meaningless. It’s just that the next three games are the ones these players dream of and, by far, matter most.

Krimmel, who has spent his entire adult life at Saint Francis as a player and then coach, fully understands how important it is to set everything up to be ready for these games, on this stage.

“It’s one of the challenges coaching at this level because so many kids, me included, you grow up dreaming of playing in the NCAA Tournament and being one of the 64 or 68 teams that make it to the Big Dance,” Krimmel said. “If all you do is hang your hat on that one goal, I think you would deal with a lot of disappointment.

“One of the things we’ve tried to get our guys to understand is that’s a performance goal, that’s an outcome goal. That’s something that we start the season, everybody puts on the uniform to work for a championship. We try to get these guys to embrace just getting a little bit better step by step.”

Saint Francis brings a talented team led by standouts Keith Braxton and Jamaal King into the tournament. Both were named first-team all-NEC on Tuesday, the first time in program history for the Flash to have two players on the NEC’s first team.

King leads the team in scoring at 18.3 points per game, can get his shot from anywhere on the court and is a good 3-point shooter. Braxton (17.1 points, 9.7 rebounds) is a do-everything kind of player who had a triple-double — the first recorded one in program history — during the Flash’s home win over FDU this season.

“Jamaal has really emerged as the heart of this team,” Krimmel said. “He’s such a competitive kid.

“(Keith has) done as good of a job as anybody handling expectations throughout the course of the year. He went through a stretch there where he struggled a little bit, but it didn’t faze him. He continued to work and had a tremendous attitude through it all. He’s a kid that can impact the game on both ends.”

Krimmel said both players “aren’t afraid of the moment,” and that has been apparent as King and Braxton are always in the middle of the action late in tight games.

Those guys make up the Flash’s “big two,” but the team actually has a “big three” that includes sharpshooting guard Andre Woolford (14.1 points). He was named the NEC’s Most Improved Player on Tuesday, stepping into a major role and thriving after starting guard Isaiah Blackmon was lost to a season-ending knee injury.

“He went from four points per game to 14 points per game and was third in the country in 3-point shooting (49.5 percent),” Krimmel said of Wolford.

While King, Braxton and Wolford will have to carry the bulk of the load for the Flash if they’re going to win three games and reach the NCAA Tournament, the role players will have to come up big, as well.

“As good as those three guys are and as good as they’ve been all year, a lot of times these tournament games come down to some other guys and can we get one or two players to step up and play a little above what they’ve been playing,” Krimmel said.