The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

St. Francis Brooklyn may finally seize elusive first NCAA tournament bid

St. Francis Brooklyn coach Glenn Braica could lead the Terriers to the NCAA tournament for the first time. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

It is one of college basketball’s most enduring trivia questions: Name the five schools that have been part of Division 1 since it was formed in 1948 who have never played in the NCAA tournament.

Here’s the list: Northwestern, Army, William & Mary, The Citadel and St. Francis Brooklyn.

It is the club all five members would like to be bounced from as soon as possible.

Last season, William & Mary came within seconds of paring the list to four, when it had a seven point lead in the CAA title game against Delaware with 1:20 to go. The Blue Hens scored the game’s last eight points.

The Tribe may have another chance to get out of the club this season. Going into the final weekend of the regular season they are tied for first place in the CAA, ensuring a high seed in next week’s conference tournament in Baltimore.

But no one among the five is going to have a better chance this spring to finally find the exit from purgatory than St. Francis. Fourteen years ago, the Terriers led the NEC final by 20 with 14 minutes to go — and lost.

This season, they have already clinched the NEC regular season title with two games to play. They are 14-2 in conference play (20-9 overall) and lead three teams tied for second place by a whopping four games going into Thursday night’s game against LIU-Brooklyn.

Winning the regular season title is a big deal for the Terriers for two reasons. First, they are assured of an NIT bid even if they don’t win the conference tournament. That may not sound like a big deal but the last time the school played in any postseason tournament was in 1963 — when they played in the NIT for the third time.

Second — and foremost — they will get to play all their conference tournament games at home in the tiny gym inside The Pope Physical Education Center.

“They say you can get 1,200 people into the place,” Coach Glenn Braica said on Wednesday. “I’m not sure that’s true. But I will say this: I’ve been in a lot of the big places, including The Carrier Dome and I think the little gyms, like ours, are tougher for the visiting teams to play in. Everything’s close — and loud. I think we’ll have very loud crowds for the tournament.”

Braica recently turned 50. He had never been a head coach until St. Francis called in the spring of 2010 to ask if he wanted to interview for the job. A lifelong New Yorker, he had spent six seasons at St. John’s as an assistant under Norm Roberts after a lengthy stint as an assistant at St. Francis.

“We got let go at St. John’s and, honestly, my first reaction was that I was going to take a year off,” Braica said. “A couple of friends who were coaching mid-majors offered me jobs but I thought, ‘you know what, I need some time to step back.’ I wanted to travel a little, maybe go to watch some of my friends run practice — things like that. I was drained. I needed a break.”

That changed when Brian Nash decided to resign as St. Francis’s coach after eight years on the job.

“I went to work out one night because one of the things I wanted to do was get in better shape,” he said. “When I got dressed and turned on my phone I saw I had about 30 texts. I panicked. I thought someone had died or something. But they were all the same: ‘Brian Nash just resigned at St. Francis. You should be the next coach there.’

“To be honest, my first thought was, ‘I can get that job.’ A lot of the people I would put down on my resume for recommendations were the same people who’d be picking the new coach. I’d never been a head coach. The thought of having that chance rejuvenated me.”

The Terriers improved steadily in each of Braica’s first four seasons. They were 18-14 a year ago, but this season it has all come together, thanks in large part to two seniors: power forward Jalen Cannon and point guard Brent Jones. Cannon averages 16.7 points per game and more than 10 rebounds a game. He’s 6-foot-6 and was considered under-sized for an inside player coming out of high school, which is one of the reasons St. Francis was able to get him. Nine of the Terriers — like their coach — are New Yorkers, but Cannon came out of Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“Give credit to [former assistant] Andy Johnston for that,” Braica said. “He saw a lot of potential and really pushed me to go after him. When Jalen got here he had no inside game at all — but he could rebound. Then he developed an inside game. This year, he’s actually stepped outside on occasion and hit some critical threes for us. He’s just steadily gotten better and better. That’s kind of the way our whole team has been.

“We’re not great, but we’re good and we’re a team where everyone knows their role. There’s never been any doubt that Jalen and Brent were going to be our main guys this season.”

Jones averages 13.9 points per game and he and Cannon are the only players on the team who average in double figures. They’re also the only two who have started all 29 games, although junior Tyrek Jewell, the team’s No. 3 scorer, has started 28. Braica plays nine players at least 10 minutes a game. Cannon and Jones play 34 a game — Jewell is the only other player who gets to 30.

In spite of the 20 wins and the runaway regular season title, it hasn’t been easy. The Terriers started the season 0-5. Three of those losses were guarantee games — at Georgetown, at Rutgers and at LaSalle. All three games were competitive.

“I was a little concerned we might get beaten down early by the losing,” Braica said. “I told the kids, this will either break us or make us better. It made us better, which is a great reflection on them. That’s what I keep reminding them. No team stays the same. You either get better or get worse. The key for us, especially the next couple of weeks is to keep getting better.”

Braica doesn’t bring up the NCAA ‘streak,’ very often — if at all.

“They’re aware of it,” he said. “We’re all aware of it. But I’m not talking about it to them.” He paused. “Now, if we win the conference tournament then I’ll talk about it a lot –for a long, long time.”

There will be lots of conference tournament finals in the next few weeks. If the NEC final should happen to be in ‘The Pope,’ it might just be the most dramatic one of all.

Games to watch this weekend

Northern Iowa-Wichita State: This is the rematch in Wichita after UNI won the first meeting at home and the winner Saturday is the top seed in the upcoming Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. The two teams are a combined 53-5 and if one wins both the regular season and the conference tournament it should get serious consideration for a top 3- or 4-seed on Selection Sunday, March 15.

Bucknell-American: It’s the last home game for a distinguished senior class led by Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner, Jesse Reed and John Schoof. AU won the Patriot League Tournament a year ago but needs a win Saturday to ensure it won’t have to play a first round conference tournament game on Tuesday. Bucknell is the No. 1 seed with a win.

Harvard-Columbia: Yes, seriously. This has become a good rivalry in recent years. If the Crimson can play on Broadway they’ll take a giant step towards a fourth straight solo Ivy League title and a fourth straight NCAA bid. Remember, no conference tournament.