Head Coach Rob Krimmel has certainly gotten things rolling in Loretto. Krimmel took over for Don Friday, who went a combined 23-48 in NEC play in four seasons, in 2012 and has gradually improved the program; from the #330 ranked Kenpom team in 2013 to #214 in 2018, and he’s coming off back-to-back 12-6 league campaigns.
However, last season was kind of a disappointment; after being the unanimous pre-season pick to win the Northeast Conference, the Red Flash finished tied atop the regular season standings with Fairleigh Dickinson at 12-6 before falling to FDU at home 85-76 in the NEC title game, then dropping an 89-72 contest at Indiana in the NIT. A great season to be sure, but for a team with a generational talent (at least at this level) in Keith Braxton, and high expectations, it wasn’t what fans had hoped for.
Fortunately for Krimmel, Braxton has returned for his senior season after flirting with the NBA. However, there were quite a few questions coming into this season; how would Krimmel replace Jamaal King and his 25.6% usage (15.5 ppg), would someone be able to step up in the frontcourt, and could the defense improve enough to get the Red Flash where they want to go?
In the pre-season I was bearish on Saint Francis; yes, I knew how good Braxton would be, but there was no clear successor at the point guard position, plus SFU has failed to meet expectations in each of the past two seasons. Well…maybe I was wrong? As we sit here today, the Red Flash are the highest rated team at both Kenpom and Torvik, but that doesn’t tell the complete story; the Red Flash are currently #193 at Kenpom, which is the highest a SFU team has been rated since January of 2018, when they were rated #182 before they lost by 30 at home to Wagner (they’d finish at #214). So..how is this happening?
For starters, the offense has not taken a step back despite the loss of King (and Andre Wolford and his 36.4% 3P%). Their Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, according to Kenpom, is currently 102.0, which is easily the highest in the Northeast Conference and ranked #122 nationally. While a 102.0 O-Rating doesn’t seem that impressive (they were at 105.5 last season and 106.4 in 2017-18), keep in mind that offensive efficiency has come down due to the change in three-point distance; the average O-Rating last season was 104.3, compared to 99.4 so far in 2019-20. So, the Red Flash have actually improved offensively when compared to the rest of college basketball.
While there were rumblings that Braxton would take over at the ‘1’ during the summer (which is likely where he’ll play as a professional), it appeared at the beginning of the season that Krimmel wanted to roll with Ramiir Dixon-Conover, a junior who averaged 7.6 minutes a game last season, and is the only true point guard on the roster. He started the season's first five games, averaging nearly 23 minutes per contest. However, that plan is likely finished; Dixon-Conover has 13 assists against 22 turnovers, and an eFG% of just 36.8%, which is likely why he’s played just 29 minutes over the past three games. Instead, it’s now Braxton running the show, and he looks damn good doing it. In Wednesday night's win over Lehigh, Braxton nearly had a triple double (18 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists, plus just 1 turnover), and through 8 games he’s averaging a career-high 17.5ppg and 4apg, and he’s got 32 assists against 24 turnovers. What’s more, he seems perfectly content getting his teammates involved early, and despite being 6’5”, is one of the best passers in the league. Putting the ball in Braxton’s hands and having him make a play (for himself or someone else) seems like a completely reasonable offense.
With Braxton at the ‘1’, Krimmel can now flood the floor with shooters; Isaiah Blackmon, who’s yet to really get going from deep, is shooting 32.5% on the season from three compared to after making 37% a year ago, while Scott Meredith has returned from injury to shoot 41%, and Myles Thompson (43%) and Tyler Stewart (44%) have been really good as stretch-4’s. Plus Bryce Laskey (4 for 9) has shown an ability to knock down perimeter shots when given the opportunity. Therefore, it’s no surprise that SFU has seen their 3P% actually increase from 35.3% (120th nationally) to 36.2% (72nd) this season. And for good measure, they're making their free throws at a 78.8% clip, which is good for 14th in the country.
Additionally, they’ve continued to give themselves extra possessions by not turning the ball over, and crashing the offensive glass. The Red Flash are coughing it up on just 18.8% of possessions, which is up from 17.5% last season but is also skewed by some ugly turnover numbers in November including a 29% turnover rate against Florida St. Over their last two games, with Braxton largely running point, they’ve turned it over just 16 times (11.6%). Meanwhile, Mark Flagg has continued to be really good on the offensive boards (15.1% OR%), as has Isaiah Blackmon (7.8%, despite his 6’1” frame).
While they’ve remained really good offensively, Krimmel has seen an improvement on the defensive end; after having the 332nd rated defense in D1 last season, this year they’re up to #280 (104.2 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency). No, that’s not great, but it’s an improvement that could go a long way, especially considering where they’ve improved; on the interior. In 2018-19, Krimmel was left with no choice but to play largely with 4-guards, which caused them to struggle to protect the rim as opponents shot 61.7% on “close twos”, which was the 2nd highest (aka 2nd worst) in the Northeast Conference. This season, however, is completely different; with Braxton at the ‘1’, he’s pretty much rolled with two bigs at all times, and has the depth needed to withstand foul issues with Myles Thompson (6’6” 230 lbs.), Tyler Stewart (6’8”), Mark Flagg (6’9”) and Deivydas Kuzavas (6’10”) all providing good minutes, as well as versatility. This season opponents are making just 59.2% of their opportunities at the rim, and it’s important to remember that early season numbers can be skewed by games against high-majors (SFU has played Florida St., VCU, Richmond, and currently undefeated Delaware). It’s reasonable to expect the defensive numbers to improve as NEC play rolls around.
So, is this the year? It’s obviously too early to start making grand proclamations, especially with the number of strong teams in the league this season. However, based on Torvik’s Game Scores, there’s a clear separation between the Red Flash and everyone else in the league, as their 51.1 average Game Score is tops in the league (Bryant is 2nd at 47.8), and they’ve had only one game below the NEC average of 29.5 (their loss to Delaware). Sure, Sacred Heart is more than capable of winning this league, and teams like Long Island, Fairleigh Dickinson, Bryant, and Mount St. Mary’s may not be too far behind, but you shouldn’t be surprised if this is finally the year for Rob Krimmel.