By Charles Bare
Special to GoHolyCross.com
Coming off a disappointing season in which it posted an overall record of 12-18 and a 4-10 mark in the Patriot League, Holy Cross looks to bounce back in 2013-2014 and once again be a contender in the conference. The Crusaders return three starters from last year's squad, and 10 out of 14 letterwinners. With the addition of six talented new players, Holy Cross has the ingredients necessary to be in the upper echelon of the league.
"First and foremost, we have to be a better defensive team if we are going to have a good season," said head coach Milan Brown. "We are also looking to become more efficient on the offensive end. But if we can defend and rebound the ball, we will have a chance to be successful this year."
The Crusaders did show potential last season, ranking second in the conference in free throw shooting (75.3 percent), blocked shots (3.5 per game) and offensive rebounds (9.1 per game). Holy Cross also placed third in the Patriot League by holding its opponents to 31.8 percent shooting from three-point range last year.
Even though Holy Cross will be a very young team with only one senior on the roster, the Crusaders have the ability to finish near the top of the Patriot League standings, and be in contention for a postseason tournament bid in March.
Senior forward Dave Dudzinski looks to be one of the top big men in the conference, after earning second team All-Patriot League honors last season. He averaged a team-best 15.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game in 2012-2013, while making 81.7 percent of his free throws (107 of 131), 48.3 percent of his field goals (166 of 344) and 34.6 percent of his three-pointers (18 of 52). Dudzinski finished the year ranked fourth in the Patriot League in scoring, fourth in rebounding, fifth in free throw percentage, eighth in field goal percentage and eighth in blocks.
"We are expecting big things from Dave Dudzinski this year," said Brown. "He is not only an excellent scorer and rebounder, but he has also become a better passer. He should attract a lot of attention and double teams, so that ability to find the open man can really help our offense."
Junior forward Taylor Abt should contend for the other starting spot in the frontcourt. Abt averaged 2.0 points and 2.0 rebounds per game last year, but missed several contests to injury.
"Taylor Abt has really improved his game, and has been shooting the ball very well," said Brown. "He is also our best post defender, not only guarding his own man, but helping on the weak side."
Sophomore forward Christopher Morgan is another player who can compete for a starting role along the front line, after earning seven starts late last season. Morgan averaged 1.4 points and 1.2 rebounds per game in 2012-2013, making 52.9 percent of his field goal attempts (nine of 17) and 71.4 percent of his free throws (five of seven).
"Christopher Morgan is a very active player, who can help allow us to play with more tempo," said Brown. "His athleticism should really help us on the defensive end."
Sophomore forward Isaiah Baker could also earn more minutes in the post, after playing in just five games last season due to injury. Baker totaled one point, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in 2012-2013.
"Isaiah Baker is a physical presence who can help us out in the post," said Brown. "He is not afraid to mix it up down low, and has the ability to become one of our best rebounders."
Freshman forward Malachi Alexander and freshman center Matt Husek are two others who will look to break into the rotation in the frontcourt. Alexander comes from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Md., where he led the team to an overall record of 27-1 and the Maryland Class 4A state championship last year. Husek is a graduate of Bethlehem (Pa.) Catholic High School, who earned third team All-State honors during his senior year.
"Malachi Alexander and Matt Husek are two very skilled players," said Brown. "Alexander handles the ball very well for a big man and can also provide us with some scoring punch. Husek is willing to bang around in the post, and also has the ability to step out and hit jump shots."
Junior walk-on forward Patrick Kerrigan will provide added depth for the Crusaders in the low post.
The Holy Cross backcourt will be led by junior point guard Justin Burrell, who will be in the starting lineup for the third straight season. Burrell averaged 12.1 points, 3.7 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game last year, and broke the school single-season record by making 91.3 percent (63 of 69) of his free throws. He also ranked second on the team in three-point shooting, connecting on 38.3 percent (41 of 107) of his shots from behind the arc. Burrell scored in double-figures 19 times during the 2012-2013 season, including a career-high 30 points at Sacred Heart.
"Justin Burrell has definitely stepped up as far as becoming a leader," said Brown. "He does a very good job of distributing the ball, and can also provide pressure on the defensive end. We probably will not need him to score as much as he has in the past, and he has been willing to adjust his game to help set up the other players around him."
Junior forward Malcolm Miller should also be back in the starting lineup at one of the wing positions, after developing into a key player last year. Miller showed his all-around ability by averaging 5.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 0.8 blocked shots per game in 2012-2013. Over the course of the season, he led the team in rebounding eight times, steals eight times, blocks eight times and assists four times.
"We are looking for Malcolm Miller to have a breakout season," said Brown. "He can score, he can rebound on both ends, and he can guard several different positions. We hope that he can make a big jump this year, with the potential to become an All-Patriot League player,"
Sophomore guard Cullen Hamilton is the top candidate to take over the other spot on the wing, after earning seven starts late last year and being selected to the Patriot League All-Rookie team. Hamilton averaged 6.3 points and 2.9 rebounds per game in 2012-2013, and came on strong in Patriot League play by hitting 36.1 percent (22 of 61) of his three-point field goal attempts against conference foes.
"Cullen Hamilton has great shooting ability, and we expect his to be one of our top outside threats," said Brown. "He also works very hard on the defensive end, and is a very physical player for a guard."
Sophomore guard Eric Green should also earn key playing time for the Crusaders at the wing spots, after sitting out last season. Green earned Independent School League Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2011-2012 as a senior at St. Mark's School in Southborough, Mass., while helping to lead his team to an overall record of 28-2 and the New England Prep School championship.
"Eric Green could be the best perimeter defender on our team," said Brown. "He is really athletic with a good knack for the ball, and can also help us on offense as a shooter or a slasher."
Freshman guards Robert Champion and Anthony Thompson are two other players who should contribute in the backcourt. Champion, a wing, spent one post-graduate year at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., where he helped the team to an overall record of 32-6 and the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council Class AAA championship. Thompson, a point guard, graduated from the Bullis School in Potomac, Md., where he was named the Montgomery County Player of the Year as a senior. Another freshman wing, forward Riley Criswell, is expected to sit out this season due to an injury suffered during his senior year at Carrollton (Ga.) High School.
"We expect big things from the freshmen we have added in the back court," said Brown. "Anthony Thompson can pressure the ball on the defensive end and is a very good distributor on offense. Robert Champion can really shoot the ball from the wing, and he is also a tough player who is willing to rebound. Riley Criswell continues to work hard coming back from injury, and we expect him to help us in the future."
Junior walk-ons Chris Jayne and De'Vaughn Reid will provide added depth in the backcourt.
Once again this season, the Crusaders will face one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the Patriot League. The non-league schedule includes eight squads which advanced to postseason play last year, including five NCAA Tournament teams, and nine schools which posted winning records in 2012-2013.
The Crusaders begin the season with a contest against Harvard at the TD Garden in Boston, Mass. Following a home game against Sacred Heart, Holy Cross opens play in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament with contests at North Carolina and Fairfield. The Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament will then conclude at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., with games against Belmont and either Hartford or Hofstra.
Holy Cross will next play at New Hampshire, before returning home to face Albany. After a contest at Hartford, the Crusaders will play their final non-conference home date against Canisius. The non-league slate then concludes with games at NJIT and Michigan.
"We have definitely challenged ourselves with our non-conference schedule," said Brown. "Our players and coaches want to see how good we can be, so we put together a schedule that will test us. We think it will be very beneficial to us come January."
The Patriot League will have a different look this year, with the additions of Boston University and Loyola (Md.). Holy Cross will now play home-and-home series with each of its nine conference foes. Eight of the Crusaders' 18 league contests will be against opponents which took part in postseason play last year, in defending champion Bucknell, Boston University, Lehigh and Loyola (Md.).
"The Patriot League will be much more difficult to win this season, with the addition of two quality teams," said Brown. "But we are up for the challenge, and if we can stay healthy there is a chance for us to have a special season."