Krimmel has SFU program going strong

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Saint Francis showed all season, and especially in the first half Tuesday night, that it has a very good team.

Much more important, though, is this: Saint Francis has a very good program.

There are many reasons why that should not be the case. The Red Flash program was struggling big time not too many years ago, and the challenges of recruiting good players to the tiny Loretto school and keeping them there are numerous.

Somehow, some way, Rob Krimmel has pulled it off.

The fact that the Flash had the halftime lead (40-34) at Indiana in the first round of the NIT is the single most impressive thing I’ve seen covering the program for 20 years.

That sort of thing, from an NEC school playing at Indiana, just doesn’t happen.

“Saint Francis and the NEC, we have players here,” Flash point guard Jamaal King said. “In this conference and in Loretto, there’s talent. There’s talent everywhere, and you don’t have to be at the big-named schools like Duke and Carolina or even Big Ten schools.”

SFU did not make the NCAA Tournament this season. They made only 4-of-17 free throws in the NEC title game at home, and that will haunt them forever. But it was an anomaly.

The Flash were picked to win the NEC last season. They were picked to win it this year, and did. They probably will be picked to win it next season.

Krimmel went 5-24 his first season with SFU, and from those depths has arisen one of the most consistent programs in the NEC. For the past five years, the Flash have consistently won big games, both at home and on the road, and made noise in the conference tournament, which is always the most important thing for a program in a one-bid league.

“The program has come a long way in the last few years,” AD Susan Robinson Fruchtl said Tuesday following the 89-72 loss at Assembly Hall. “Rob’s done a great job of getting a really strong nucleus here, good guard play. And the kids fight. They battle, and they’re together.

“We want to be in a position to compete for a Northeast Conference championship every year. I think Rob has done that consistently.”

The backbone of the team the past two years has been King and Keith Braxton, both two-time all-NEC first-team selections. Braxton was the league’s Player of the Year this season.

King is graduating, and so is sharpshooter Andre Wolford, but both Braxton and the very talented Isaiah Blackmon said Tuesday they plan to return to SFU next season. Both are so good that you always have to worry about a bigger school swooping in and convincing them to transfer.

Next year’s team should be very good. Whether it can make the NCAA Tournament will come down to a lot of factors, but at least it should be in the hunt.

Beyond that, when Braxton and Blackmon are gone, Krimmel should be able to use the success over so many years to continue to recruit high-quality talent. He and the coaching staff already have proven they can develop that talent, and also have proven to be good at in-game adjustments and late-game situations.

All the pieces should be in place, then, for this successful run to continue.

“We wanted to build a program that was going to be around,” Krimmel said.

Krimmel made an excellent impression on the folks at Indiana on Tuesday, and with everything he brings on and off the court, it probably will start to get tougher and tougher to keep him at Saint Francis. He’s a lifer there, sure, but if some school comes along offering a job paying $500,000 a year or more, that’s life-changing money that SFU cannot compete with.

It may take the Flash getting to an NCAA Tournament before another school offers Krimmel that kind of job, but it’s certainly a possibility.

“We want a great basketball program,” Robinson Fruchtl said. “We want all our programs to be great. But we know that having a great basketball program gets us a lot of exposure as an institution, and that’s really important for our school.”

The school has Krimmel to thank for all of it. Now the only thing left to accomplish is getting to an NCAA Tournament, and that very well could come next year.

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

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