By Brian Johnson
Special to GoHolyCross.com
The first two months of the 2013-2014 season were nothing special for the Holy Cross men's basketball team. The Crusaders went 6-6 in non-conference play, although that mark included losses to a pair of national powers in North Carolina and Michigan. Holy Cross then had a 1-3 mark in its first four Patriot League contests, to fall to 7-9 overall. But the Crusaders have come back to win 10 of their last 12 games to become one of the top contenders for the conference title. Following a 74-57 victory over Navy on Feb. 23, Holy Cross now stands 17-11 overall and 11-5 in the Patriot League.
The team's recent success has coincided with a change in the starting lineup, which now features the diminutive but talented pair of 5-10 freshman guard Anthony Thompson and 5-9 junior guard Justin Burrell. As a team leader Burrell has adapted his role of becoming a scoring threat, while delegating the ball handling duties to Thompson. Combined as on-court leaders, the undersized Burrell and Thompson have instilled a strong defensive mindset within the team, in addition to creating an up-tempo offense.
Thompson entered the starting rotation on Jan. 11, and has remained the starting point guard ever since. Head coach Milan Brown's decision to start Thompson was a combination of both an ailing Cullen Hamilton and the need for a lineup change following a 1-2 conference start. Thompson running the point bumped Burrell to the shooting guard position, and also allowed athletic junior Malcolm Miller to slide over to power forward.
Despite suffering a four-point loss to Bucknell on Jan. 11, Brown kept with the lineup that featured Burrell and Thompson each playing about 30 minutes. The rotation began to click following the Bucknell game, as the Crusaders came from behind for a 78-75 victory at Army on Jan. 15 to begin a five-game winning streak. After a narrow 63-57 setback at American on Feb. 1, Holy Cross won its next four games, including a 16-point home victory over Bucknell on Feb. 9.
Burrell has emerged as a vital leader on this year's team. He commented that the slow conference start may have served as a wake-up call for both himself and the team. Burrell, a three-year starter for the Crusaders, has embraced his role on the team as a leader on and off the court. The biggest asset to Holy Cross may be Burrell's leadership ability, which he has gained through his playing experience with senior forward Dave Dudzinski. In light of the team's recent success, Burrell and Brown feel that the season is becoming a special one. "I think he wants this year to be special not only for the team, but he wants to send Dave Dudzinski off the right way," Brown said. "His communication with the team in the locker room and off the court has always been good, and he continues to mature every day."
As a team leader Burrell is definitely being heard, both on and off the court. On the hardwood, whether it be at home in the Hart Center or on the road, he tries to ensure that the team sets a tempo that allows for a fast-paced offense triggered by strong and suffocating defense. Off the court, Burrell has served as a mentor to the team's nine underclassmen, especially Thompson. Burrell believes the key to success is that the team is simply just playing basketball and having fun. "It has been great with everybody bringing their 'A' game and working hard in every game and every practice," Burrell said. "Being a leader is pretty easy when guys work hard." Burrell's role as a team player has been highlighted in the last six weeks, with Thompson emerging as a perfect back court partner.
The combination of Burrell and Thompson in the backcourt is rare to find nowadays as both guards stand below six feet. They do not find this to be a disadvantage, however, but find a way to make their size work for their benefit. "We are a lot faster than most teams and it allows us to beat their size," Burrell said. Thompson added, "I use quickness to beat opponents and I know that I will be quicker than any guard I face." If anything, the smaller backcourt is what the Crusaders needed to initiate a Patriot League run. Brown observes that Burrell and Thompson, to combat taller and bigger guards, are "very, very competitive and refuse to back down." The success over the last 12 games may also be attributed to the mental toughness to never let up on the defensive end. This quickness and defensive intensity can also produce an up-tempo offense that has recently been used to generate high percentage shots. "We enjoy playing with each other," Burrell said. "We feed off each other defensively and can really get after it." The defensive leadership between Burrell and Thompson has influenced the entire Crusader squad. As a team, Holy Cross ranks among the Patriot League leaders in several defensive categories. The Crusaders are second in the conference in rebounding defense, third in blocked shots (107), and fourth with an average of 6.2 steals per game.
Offensively, the rotation has worked just as Brown expected, with Burrell getting more open looks as the off-guard. With the addition of Thompson in the back court, Burrell's role shifted from one of the primary ball handler to that of a more dynamic scorer. The new rotation has freed Burrell and has allowed him to develop into a multi-dimensional guard. "Justin had to make some adjustments earlier in the season, because we wanted him to play a certain way at the point," Brown said. "However, we understood that he has always had an ability to score the basketball, and with Anthony at the point Justin has emerged as a more serious scoring threat." Prior to the Jan. 11 game at Bucknell, Burrell only managed to score 7.7 points per game. Since that time, he has put up 11.4 points per contest, to increase his scoring average for the season to 9.6. Burrell scored in double figures in nine straight games from Jan. 18-Feb. 15, including a season-high 19 points against Bucknell on Feb. 9. He also narrowly missed a double-double in the Feb. 12 win over Army, recording 10 points and nine assists.
In the last 13 games Thompson has emerged not only as one of the Patriot League's top freshmen, but as an elite point guard. In his first 13 games of the year, Thompson played 23.7 minutes per game while averaging 8.7 points, 2.5 assists and 1.7 turnovers. Brown has since called upon Thompson to play an average of 29.8 minutes in the last 13 games, which can be a lot to ask out of a freshman. Although he is only in his first year of collegiate basketball, he understands very well the importance of his role as a point guard on a winning team. Like Burrell, Thompson has also embraced the change in the lineup and has developed to be a key player. "I am trying to just play smarter, stay in shape, stay out of foul trouble and stay on the floor," Thompson said. "Even though I am a freshman, the coaches have put me in charge of running the team. I have been relying on my teammates, who have been tremendous, and looking to stay aggressive."
Thompson has been playing like a veteran in his last few weeks. He was named the Patriot League Rookie of the Week on Feb. 17, after helping Holy Cross to victories over Army and Lehigh. Thompson recorded six points with four assists against Army, then added 13 points and two assists at Lehigh. He followed that up last week with two more strong performances against Lafayette (13 points) and Navy (tying his career high with 17 points). Over the course of the last 13 games, Thompson has also taken care of the ball averaging only one turnover per game. In 26 career games Thompson has only 32 turnovers while he has dished out 59 assists.
With its recent success, Holy Cross has become one of the top teams in the Patriot League, currently ranked third in the conference standings. The Crusaders now look to build upon what they have done so far this season, as they attempt to bring the Patriot League championship back to Mount St. James. Coach Brown will continue to look to Burrell and Thompson to lead the Crusaders during their run into the postseason. Offensively and defensively, with Burrell and Thompson in the backcourt together, Holy Cross has become a balanced team and a serious title contender.