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Sad to see RMU leave NEC, but it’s not all bad for Flash

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Saint Francis lost not only its biggest rival, but also its biggest ally earlier this week when Robert Morris announced it’s leaving the Northeast Conference to join the Horizon League.

While the Colonials’ departure is sure to bring about some sadness for longtime Saint Francis fans, the bright side is that it also presents some good opportunities for the Red Flash men’s and women’s basketball programs.

Robert Morris’ departure from the NEC had been expected for some time, with the writing on the wall after the school opened its gorgeous new on-campus basketball arena, UPMC Events Center, this past season.

Saint Francis men’s basketball coach Rob Krimmel pointed out that the last two NEC programs to open sparkling new gyms — Quinnipiac and Monmouth — also wound up leaving the conference.

The UPMC Events Center seats 4,000 and, quite frankly, is too good of a facility for a league like the NEC. Robert Morris, which has long enjoyed the recruiting advantages associated with being close to Pittsburgh, now has the new arena to show off in hopes of getting even better players.

All of that meant leaving the NEC was inevitable.

Which, for Krimmel, does bring about some sadness.

“For a lot of reasons,” he said. “No. 1, geographically, they’re right down the street from us as founding members of the NEC.

“A lot of our fans connect with the Saint Francis-Robert Morris game,” Krimmel added, “and we have a lot of alums who live in Pittsburgh.”

Saint Francis and Robert Morris have relied on each other for many years when it came to setting NEC policy, with the two schools often voting in lockstep. The two western PA schools have been travel partners in basketball and were in the same boat together with similar priorities in a league that features primarily schools more closely located in the northeast.

In short, what was good for Saint Francis, also was usually good for Robert Morris, and vice versa.

“Any time you lose one of your allies, I think it’s a little bit of a concern,” Krimmel said.

“Certainly having someone that votes with you or is supportive of the same things or supports an issue or brings up a different side of it (is valuable).”

Now, Mount St. Mary’s, in Emmitsburg, Md., likely will become Saint Francis’ travel partner, with Krimmel noting SFU’s travel is “more unique” than other NEC schools face.

Robert Morris has long been the standard bearer for excellence in NEC men’s basketball, earning nine NCAA Tournament berths since 1981 (when the conference was founded and originally called the ECAC Metro).

The Colonials earned their ninth NCAA bid three months ago, at the expense of Saint Francis, with a 77-67 win over the Flash in the NEC Tournament title game. In fact, Robert Morris spoiled one of the greatest seasons in modern SFU history.

The Flash had beaten the Colonials nine straight times over five years, until RMU topped Saint Francis in the regular-season finale in Moon Township. That gave the Colonials the tournament’s No. 1 seed, with the Flash ending up No. 2, and that loss had a huge impact because it meant SFU would have to travel to Robert Morris if the teams met again in the finals — which is what happened.

This is where the good news comes into play about Robert Morris leaving the NEC.

The Colonials are always good, and if Saint Francis ever had hopes of winning the league and getting to the NCAA Tournament, odds were the Flash somehow would have to find a way to beat Robert Morris. Which has been and always would be very difficult.

Not just in men’s basketball, either.

The Red Flash women have long been an NEC power, reaching the NCAA Tournament 12 times since 1996. But SFU has been to the tournament just once (2018) in the past eight years, while Robert Morris emerged as the league’s dominant program, earning NCAA bids in three of the past four years. The Colonials went 17-1 this past season and would have been favored for another NCAA bid, but the NEC Tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus.

Without a doubt, the path to the NCAA Tournament becomes easier for the Saint Francis men and women now that Robert Morris has departed the NEC.

Krimmel said he has great respect for Robert Morris coach Andy Toole, and Saint Francis legend Mike Iuzzolino is an assistant coach with the Colonials. There’s a lot of mutual respect on both sides, which could help going forward with regards to a potential continuation of the series between the Flash and RMU.

“I will call Andy and see if it’s something he’d like to continue to do,” Krimmel said.

Hopefully, Toole will agree to keep the series alive, but it could be more difficult for one reason. Saint Francis would need it to be a 1-for-1 series — the Flash deserve and would settle for nothing less — and it remains to be seen if Robert Morris would agree to that given what awaits with its scheduling requirements in the Horizon League.

College basketball scheduling is very complicated, particularly for low majors that struggle to get winnable home games. Regardless, it would be terrific if the Flash and Colonials could find a way to keep playing every year.

Saint Francis rarely plays traditional rival Duquesne anymore, and it would be a shame if Robert Morris goes off the schedule, too, for any lengthy period.

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

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