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How to Flash forward: SFU will face future challenges

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Saint Francis head coach Rob Krimmel looks on.

Judging a sports team or a coach can be a tricky thing. Like with anything in life, you pick the criteria you prefer and then make judgments based on that.

Using one set of criteria, the good news is that a team or coach can look fantastic.

Using other criteria, the bad news is that significant flaws can be easily found with even those teams or coaches who otherwise are highly successful.

One of the best examples of this you’ll find is former Ohio State football coach John Cooper. He’s in the College Football Hall of Fame and went 111-43-4 in 13 years with the Buckeyes. He was an excellent coach, without question.

But Cooper went 2-10-1 against Michigan, which was flat out unacceptable in Buckeye land, and he got fired after the 2000 season.

Couldn’t win the big game. Or in that series, the ONLY game that mattered.

In wrapping up the Saint Francis men’s basketball season and coach Rob Krimmel’s performance through eight years, there’s a lot of good news. A whole lot of good news.

But there’s some bad news, as well, that must be addressed if we’re going to fully evaluate the Red Flash program. So let’s get into the issues:

Good news: The Flash went 22-10, reaching 20 wins for the first time since 1991 and just the second time since 1967.

There was a time not long ago when Saint Francis basketball looked like it was beyond salvaging. Then Krimmel came along and has done a masterful job resurrecting the program and becoming a perennial powerhouse in the NEC.

“It was important for us to be able to maintain a certain level of success,” Krimmel said. “When we started it, we wanted to make sure we weren’t good for a year, then drop out for four years.”

Mission accomplished. Saint Francis basketball has been a model of stability, winning at least 17 games for four years in a row.

Krimmel’s teams have shown a strong ability to play well late in the season, which is important in a small conference.

The Flash won eight games in a row late last season to capture a share of the Northeast Conference regular-season title.

They won eight in a row late this season to surge into third place and the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. Then they clobbered their first two opponents in the NEC Tournament to advance to the championship game for the third time in four years.

Bad news: The Red Flash and Krimmel have not proven that they can win the big game. The one game that matters most in a one-bid league such as the NEC.

The Flash have won a lot of important games in recent years to give themselves a chance at the ultimate prize — a berth in the NCAA Tournament — only to lose all three of their appearances in the NEC finals.

They squandered a nine-point lead and lost at Mount St. Mary’s four years ago. They lost at home last year to Fairleigh Dickinson in a game they shot 4-for-17 from the free-throw line. And they lost last week to a Robert Morris team that they had beaten nine consecutive times over five years, before losing to the Colonials a week and a half earlier in the regular-season finale.

Any coach in Krimmel’s position deserves to be critiqued after going 0-3 in conference championship games, no matter how great of a job he’s done in so many other aspects.

“If people want to point at that, I get it because, as competitors and as athletes, that’s what you sign up for,” Krimmel said. “That’s the standard we accept.”

Krimmel doesn’t judge himself on any individual basketball achievement and reiterated what he said last week — that he judges himself on being a good father.

But he understands how all of this works with regards to public perception and championships.

“When you look at what’s important in society, the ability to win a championship in any sport … it’s every kid’s dream to do that,” Krimmel said.

“People look at, you’ve got to win a Super Bowl to be a great player or great coach. Those have always been the standards or the measuring stick. I get it and understand that. But I don’t want it to take away from what the group accomplished this year or the seniors over four years. … I’m not going to let one game define a group of guys, because for 22 other games (this season), they were pretty good.”

Good news: Krimmel has done an incredible job turning lightly recruited players into college stars. It began a few years ago with Earl Brown and Ronnie Drinnon, then culminated with Keith Braxton becoming an NEC legend and Isaiah Blackmon a star as the league’s best player this season.

Bad news: Krimmel had not one, but two NEC players of the year on the team this season and still didn’t win either the regular-season conference title or the tournament championship game.

Braxton and Blackmon were first-team all-conference selections, but the Flash only finished third and lost to a Robert Morris team that, quite frankly, did not have as much overall talent as SFU did.

Saint Francis led the Colonials by 24 and won by 15 at home in the first meeting this season. Then Robert Morris dominated the Flash for most of the 80 minutes over the next two games.

What the heck happened from the first game to the next two? And why, after getting outplayed for most of the second meeting two weeks ago in the regular-season finale, were Krimmel and his staff not able to figure out a game plan to win the vital game for the tournament title?

This was, again, a team that SFU had beaten nine straight times over five years, yet lost the two most important games in a 10-day stretch. Credit goes to Robert Morris coach Andy Toole for figuring out some of the Flash’s weaknesses and exploiting them in the last two matchups.

Good news: Krimmel and his staff have been phenomenal at finding under-the-radar recruits and turning them into stars, as mentioned before.

Now the goal is to be able to land some bigger-name recruits, and the program’s success in recent years should help in that regard.

“I look at what’s the fit for Saint Francis,” Krimmel said of recruiting. “Obviously you want to get the best players possible coming in the door, but there’s more to being successful at Saint Francis than just finding the best basketball players.”

Bad news: It’s hard to find lightning in a bottle twice, let alone three or four times. So far, Krimmel has relied on underrated recruits to become stars, and the Flash reached the pinnacle of that with Braxton Blackmon.

To expect that trend to continue is a lot to ask, and certainly not a viable way to sustain long-term success. It’s far more feasible to believe that Saint Francis won’t get another Braxton or Blackmon for 25 years than it is to think another one could be on the way soon.

By the way, Braxton and Blackmon are so good that they were invited to compete in the 3-on-3 tournament for standout seniors at the Final Four. That opportunity was denied the two young men with the tournament getting canceled because of the coronavirus.

As I’ve written several times in recent years, Krimmel has done a sensational job at Saint Francis. He is an excellent college basketball coach and probably could go on to bigger and better jobs if he wanted to (he doesn’t, by the way).

But there is a hard truth in play here. For as good as the Red Flash have been, and with the star power they’ve had in place, they couldn’t finish the deal and win an NEC title to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

If it didn’t happen with the Braxton and Blackmon group, it’s certainly fair to wonder if it will ever happen for Saint Francis.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

Ruggery makes great

progress as redshirt

Saint Francis coach Rob Krimmel was extremely impressed with Luke Ruggery during his redshirt season, calling the Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic product “the hardest-working kid in our program.”

“The day before the (NEC) championship game, he shot in the morning, ran six miles, practiced, then lifted. That’s four workouts in one day,” Krimmel said.

“He was fantastic all year for us. You can’t think of a better kid to redshirt,” the coach added.

A 5-foot-11 sharpshooting guard, Ruggery has a chance to crack the rotation next season if he keeps developing.

“I don’t promise anything to anybody at this time of the year,” Krimmel said. “But realistically when you look at what we’ve got coming back, (his goal should be) get in the rotation.

“The energy that he plays with and the way he shoots the ball, I’m excited to see him take the next step.”

— Cory Giger

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