Back on a beautiful, partly cloudy late fall afternoon; October 26, 2016, the Northeast Conference men’s basketball preseason poll was announced at the fifth annual NEC Basketball Social Media Day at Barclays Center. And so far, it has been a good outlook on the 2016-17 season.
The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, who were voted No. 1, are currently No. 2 behind the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers, who were picked tied for fourth with the LIU Brooklyn Blackhawks. While the Wagner Seahawks and the Bryant Bulldogs are both playing below expectations tied for fifth; each were looked at to be No. 2 and No. 3 in the conference, respectively, with the Seahawks tallying four first-place votes.
Robert Morris, St. Francis Brooklyn, Sacred Heart and Central Connecticut are all in the bottom half of the conference, where they were voted by the coaches. One team not mentioned, chosen to finish ninth and not receiving enough attention for how they’re performing is Saint Francis University, currently fourth in the NEC.
“They’re a really talented, well-coached, great executing team,” Wagner head coach Bashir Mason said about the Red Flash at the postgame press conference following a 72-67 loss to SFU January 26.
PRIDE, MATURITY, LEADERSHIP
Red Flash head coach Rob Krimmel gives all credit of his team’s success to the pride-filled mature leadership in the locker room. Some of the players that he pointed out as contributors to that are Keith Braxton, Isaiah Blackmon, Jamaal King, and Josh Nebo. What makes those names the more impressive besides where the group stacks up conference-wise is how each is either a freshman or sophomore.
“I feel like we can win the championship,” Blackmon said when asked about who else he’d add to his coach’s list of impact players. “You got a fantastic freshman like Keith Braxton, guys on the board like Nebo and a great point guard in Jamaal. It’s a great combination that helps keep the team together and focused to win. We have great pieces coming off the bench like Georgios [Angelou], he’s a great three-point shooter; Andre [Wolford], he gives us great minutes, and guys like Randall Gaskins [Jr.] is a lock-up defender.”
Braxton and Nebo average nearly a double-double. King joins them as the Red Flash’s three double-figure scorers. Braxton has been named rookie of the week five times already, the most recent being the week of January 23. All of them encompass what ranks as the NEC’s top scoring offense.
“As a coach, it gives you a couple of different options because you’re not always putting the ball on the block or relying on the three-point shot,” Krimmel said about what it’s like having players the likes of Braxton, King and Nebo. “We have guys that are multidimensional that can drive it and shoot it. It makes things easier when you’re trying to draw plays, especially when you have a guy that might have an off night. That’s what we want from these guys. We talk about contributions, whether it’s two minutes or 22 minutes; when you can come in and lift us up.”
“We have two-way guys. They can defend, rebound, score and as a coach, you don’t have to draw trick plays every single possession. Having guys that are multidimensional, you don’t have to worry about manufacturing stuff either offensively or defensively, because you let their skill set take over.”
SAY MY NAME
A player Krimmel mentioned, but one who isn’t receiving nearly the amount of praise he deserves, is Blackmon. He was finally recognized by the league the week of January 30, when he rightfully earned NEC Player of the Week honors. It’s understandable that he hadn’t garnered any looks until now, because he is as close to the healthiest he’s been since tearing his ACL last February.
“The great thing about this guy is I don’t know if I call many plays for him,” Krimmel said of Blackmon, “but I just know he has a knack for scoring and a good feel defensively. That’s the other thing that makes my job easier when you have guys that can just go make plays and you don’t have to worry about trying to get guys in spots every time.”
In Blackmon’s return to the lineup, he scored a career-high 25 points while hitting 4-of-5 from three-point range and adding five rebounds, three assists and two steals in the Red Flash’s win over Wagner. He didn’t slow down in his next game, dropping another 20 points with the help of another four three to lead SFU to a 89-83 overtime win over in-state rival Robert Morris on January 28. He is a potent scorer and someone that more than definitely adds to the rotation depth, something Krimmel said is what they need heading into the final weeks of the season.
“I like this team,” Krimmel said. “We continue to get better, and that was our focus going into the season. We wanted to be ready for January and February. Now, a big part of it is getting lucky and healthy. Those things are part of everybody’s plan moving forward.”
“It’s a close group. I love coaching these guys, they’re a lot of fun to be around and they’re passionate about the game. It’s a long season. We’ve been practicing since the end of September. The energy level that these guys have still is a credit to our leadership, their passion for basketball and the guys care in that locker room. Our challenge is these win one, lose one. We want to put together a little bit of a streak. Let’s find a way to put a couple together here instead of going back and forth.”