February 23, 2005

Holy Cross Back On Top

Feb. 15, 2005

"New Look" Crusaders Are Back on Top

by Phil Kasiecki


WORCESTER, Mass. - Keith Simmons didn't always enjoy last season at Holy Cross. Though only a freshman at the time, he knew what his team's play meant after they had won three straight Patriot League titles.

"Last year was a real tough year, 13-15," the sophomore guard said. "We worked hard over the offseason, a couple of players were up here during the summer as well as myself. Everybody knew that we had to make improvements."

The improvements appear to have been made. Holy Cross has a stranglehold on the Patriot League after two more wins this weekend, as the Crusaders hold a two-game lead over Bucknell in the Patriot League standings and are poised to return to the NCAA Tournament. Sunday's 73-53 victory over Lehigh was their 11th straight win and put them a win away from 20 wins for the third time in Ralph Willard's six seasons as head coach at his alma mater.

The team certainly has a different look than it did two years ago, when they went 26-5 and nearly knocked off Marquette in the NCAA Tournament. All of Willard's assistants from last season moved on, so there was a major change in the staff. But the differences go beyond the leaders on the bench. Up until two seasons ago, the resurgence of the program was built around big men, as the Crusaders fielded a lineup much bigger than their Patriot League counterparts with players like Patrick Whearty, Josh Sankes, Tim Szatko and Nate Lufkin. For good measure, they briefly received contributions from Neil Fingleton, who stood 7'6". Lufkin is still around, but this team is decidedly guard-oriented now and they have won several games due largely to their guard play.

Junior guard Kevin Hamilton is a strong Patriot League Player of the Year candidate, as he is the only player in the Patriot League in the top ten in scoring (second), rebounding, assists and steals (leads). He is flanked by sophomore point guard Torey Thomas, and they are backed up by Simmons and freshman Pat Doherty, both of whom have been key contributors. Thomas and Doherty, though two different point guards, have done one important thing consistently, which is control the game and run the offense. Thomas pushes the pace and uses his quickness and strength to effectively drive, while Doherty plays the game like a seasoned veteran and does so many little things well. Simmons, who came to college not known as a shooter, shot nearly 46% on three-pointers last season and is almost duplicating that this year.

It's hard to list just one thing that stands out about every player because they all do so many things well, and the team meshes as well as any out there. They all speak highly of one another and there is clearly a great deal of camaraderie between the players. That's one reason this team is great to watch, and as they have continued to win and play well night in and night out, it becomes clear that this team is having fun all the while.

"They're enjoying each other, they really like each other an awful lot - everybody on this team really roots for one another," Willard said.

When Thomas suffered a separated shoulder last month and couldn't play much, Doherty stepped right in and the team didn't miss a beat. Everyone on the team, including Thomas, got right behind Doherty, and things still clicked on all cylinders. With Thomas back, the Crusaders are that much tougher, as evidenced by Sunday's win where he had 11 assists and no turnovers.

"Pat and Torey are really giving us a tremendous combination now at the point guard spot," Willard said. "They both give us different things, they both root for each other, they're both great guys, both of them contributing the way they're contributing makes us that much better."

The frontcourt players aren't spectacular, but solid. Lufkin leads the way at both ends, while classmate and co-captain John Hurley is smart and tough inside and can often be seen going to the floor either from going for a loose ball or after absorbing contact. Sophomore Kevin Hyland has become a solid reserve, progressing well from last year, and freshman Tim Clifford has steadily progressed as well as he has played more minutes. Clifford's progress has been a real key, as he gives them one more reliable body to go with up front and was certainly a key while Lufkin recently struggled with an injury.

"He understands things, he's thinking less on the floor and just reacting, which is what you need to do to be a good player," Willard said. "It takes freshmen time in our system to learn the defense, and Tim has done a good job."

In all of this, it can be easy for the casual observer to miss what senior wing Greg Kinsey gives this team. Kinsey won't put up big numbers and won't be confused with a lights-out shooter, but is one of the Patriot League's best defenders. This weekend, he broke out offensively, scoring in double figures in both games. He has started 79 of the last 80 games, and that doesn't happen by accident.

"Greg has been doing a great job of leading and being vocal with our team, and we need that," said Willard. "He does all the little things that help you win."

Hamilton can't imagine how anyone could miss what Kinsey means to them.

"No way, no way," he said when asked if one might not easily notice his value. "Greg is one of the most valuable players on this team. His intensity and leadership on the court are invaluable. "

It's all part of why this team has played so well along the way. The players who don't put up big numbers are always making plays at both ends of the floor, and no one on the team is star-struck. That's also a reason why this season is such a testament to what Willard has done. They have adjusted to a new group of assistants, and after winning with big men, Willard is now winning primarily with guards. He also has a team that has won games due to offensive play, but keeps them focused on the defensive end and that is the team's identity.

The pieces are in place for the Crusaders to knock off a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Guards win games in the NCAA Tournament, and the Crusaders have that and solid depth up front. They also have a coach who has been there and knows how to win, and that has clearly been imparted to his players if the results thus far are any indication.



Phil Kasiecki is Managing Editor of Hoopville and lives in Boston. He can be contacted by clicking here.