Nov. 1, 2006
By Charles Bare
Special to GoHolyCross.com
Heading into the 2006-2007 season, the Holy Cross men's basketball team looks to remain in its place as one of the top squads in the Patriot League. Despite the loss of leading scorer Kevin Hamilton, the Crusaders return a pair of all-conference selections, four starters and six of the eight players who saw action in the regular rotation. With the addition of some talented freshmen, Holy Cross has the ingredients necessary to contend for the league championship and a postseason tournament bid.
The Crusaders are coming off a 2005-2006 campaign in which they posted an overall record of 20-12, good for their fourth 20-win season in the last six years. Holy Cross also finished in second place in the Patriot League with an 11-3 mark in conference games, reaching double figures in league victories for the fourth time in six seasons. In addition, the Crusaders played in the Patriot League championship game for the fifth time in a six-year span.
The 2006-2007 Crusaders will look to follow in the footsteps of last year's squad, and once again be among the top defensive teams in the country. Last year, Holy Cross ranked 29th in the nation in scoring defense (60.5 points per game), 26th in steals (9.1 steals per game) and 29th in field goal percentage defense (40.2 percent). The Crusaders also led the Patriot League in steals, three-point field goal percentage defense (30.3 percent), blocked shots (3.5 blocks per game) and rebounding margin (+3.9 boards per game).
"I think we will have a very well balanced team this season," said head coach Ralph Willard. "I think we will be good defensively, and we should have a good rebounding team. But that all depends on us keeping our key players healthy. I think that if we do stay healthy, our team will keep getting better as the season moves along. I think our freshmen can become solid contributors by the time league play begins, and that our depth will help us."
Here is a breakdown of how the Crusaders should look in 2006-2007.
Holy Cross returns six guards this season, who will make up the core of what should be one of the Patriot League's top backcourts. Leading the way is senior Keith Simmons, who has twice been named first team All-Patriot League. Last season, Simmons led the conference by hitting 47.6 percent of his three-point field goal attempts (60 of 126), in addition to ranking among the league leaders in field goal percentage (third, 52.5 percent), scoring (fifth, 14.2 points per game), rebounding (fifth, 5.2 boards per game), free throw percentage (sixth, 81.4 percent), three-point field goals (seventh, 1.9 made per game) and steals (10th, 1.2 steals per game). He also enters his senior season as the Patriot League's all-time leader in career three-point field goal percentage (45.1 percent, 143 of 317).
"Keith Simmons has been one of the best shooters in the Patriot League over the last few years, and I think he has the opportunity to be one of the top three players in the conference this year," said Willard. "He does it all - he defends, he rebounds, he gets to the rim, he gets to the free throw line, and he shot nearly 48 percent last year from three-point range."
Joining Simmons in the backcourt will be senior point guard Torey Thomas. An outstanding playmaker, Thomas earned second team All-Patriot League honors during the 2005-2006 season. He led the conference with 153 assists last year, while ranking second in the league with a 1.78-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. In addition, Thomas finished the season among the Patriot League leaders in steals (second, 2.4 steals per game), rebounding (fourth, 5.3 boards per game) and scoring (14th, 11.0 points per game).
"The biggest thing that Torey Thomas brings is his great leadership ability," said Willard. "He not only leads by his words, but also by his example. On the court, his outside shooting has improved dramatically, and when you combine that with his quickness, it is only going to expand his game. I expect to see him have a very good year."
Sophomore Pat Doherty looks to push Thomas for the starting point guard spot, and could also see action on the wing. The 2004-2005 Patriot League Rookie of the Year, Doherty missed all but five games last season due to injury, and received a medical redshirt. He previously started nine games for the Crusaders as a true freshman, and totaled 69 assists and 29 steals. Doherty played particularly well in conference regular season games during the 2004-2005 campaign, averaging 6.8 points per contest while hitting 41.9 percent from three-point range (18 of 43) and 83.3 percent at the free throw line (15 of 18).
"Pat Doherty is a very good outside shooter, and gives us the ability to space the floor offensively," said Willard. "The biggest question is going to be how he responds coming off the injury. If he is healthy and returns to the form he showed as a freshman, he is going to mean an awful lot to our basketball team."
A number of players look to compete for the other starting wing spot in the backcourt. Sophomore Colin Cunningham showed flashes of brilliance last year, scoring 16 points at Siena and 15 points against Fordham. He averaged 3.7 points and 2.5 rebounds per game overall, while hitting 14 of 39 (35.9 percent) three-point attempts. Sophomore Lawrence Dixon also looks to see increased playing time, after seeing action in all 32 games a year ago, and averaging 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds per contest. Junior Kyle Cruze, who totaled 20 points and 12 rebounds in limited action last season, could also become a factor.
"Colin Cunningham has the ability to develop into a very good player in this league, and he has a chance to step up this year and become a major contributor," said Willard. "Lawrence Dixon was forced to play out of position last year at power forward, but this year he will be back to his natural spot on the wing and can play a key role. And Kyle Cruze is continuing to develop from a stand-still jump shooter into a complete player, so he can also help us this year."
A pair of true freshmen will also look to break into the lineup, in Adam May and Zach Paterick. May was named first team All-Ohio by the Associated Press last season, after averaging 22.6 points per game at Mentor High School. Paterick earned St. John's County Player of the Year honors at Nease High School in St. Augustine, Fla., where he averaged 19 points per game as a senior.
"Adam May is a good outside shooter and penetrator, and at 6-8 he can present some match-up problems," said Willard. "Zach Paterick plays with a lot of energy and is a good defender. I expect both of them to see some key minutes for us."
The low post positions could develop into a strength for Holy Cross this season, with the return of two talented starters to the lineup. Junior center Tim Clifford took over as the starter for the Crusaders midway through last season, and averaged 7.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and a Patriot League-best 1.5 blocked shots per contest. His numbers were even better once he moved into the starting lineup, as he posted 11.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game over the final 14 contests of the season, while making 54.9 percent of his field goal attempts (56 of 102).
"We look for Tim Clifford to continue to improve and expand his game," said Willard. "He has been working to improve his low-post moves so that he can get to the free throw line more, and he is also a good three-point shooter for a big man. I look for him to have a very good year."
Sophomore forward Alex Vander Baan, also looks to become a force, after starting 30 out of 32 games a year ago. A selection to the Patriot League All-Rookie team, in addition to earning Patriot League Rookie of the Week honors four times, Vander Baan ranked ninth in the conference in rebounding (5.0 boards per game). He also scored a career-high 21 points against Mississippi State in the San Juan Shootout, and averaged 6.2 points per game on the season.
"I look for Alex Vander Baan to expand on the outstanding year he had as a freshman," said Willard. "He had to play an awful lot of minutes last season. If we develop better depth on the front line this year to help keep him fresh, then he could have an even better year this season."
Three other young players will also compete for playing time in the frontcourt, in sophomore center Greg McCarthy, freshman forward Andrew Keister and freshman forward Eric Meister. McCarthy, who saw action in just seven games last season, will look to develop into a contributor at center. Keister averaged 16.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.4 steals and 2.2 blocks per game during his senior year at Absegami High School in Galloway, N.J., and looks to win playing time right away. Meister should also make an immediate impact, after averaging 17.5 points per game as a senior at State College (Pa.) Area High School, and finishing his prep career with 1,407 total points.
"Greg McCarthy has gotten a little stronger, and we hope he can provide us with some minutes at center," said Willard. "Andrew Keister is very versatile for a big man, as he can shoot the three-pointer and put the ball on the floor. And Eric Meister is a very good low post player, who plays bigger than his size with a 36-inch vertical leap. I can see all three of those guys helping out in the front court this year."
The Crusaders have played challenging non-league schedules over the last several years, with Holy Cross' non-conference strength of schedule ranking in the top 100 in the nation during each of the last two seasons. This year will be no different, as the Crusaders are scheduled to play at least four non-league teams which took part in last year's NCAA Tournament.
Holy Cross will play road games against NCAA participants Duke and Syracuse, while taking on George Mason (which advanced to the Final Four) at the DCU Center and Hampton at the Hart Center. The Crusaders are also scheduled to take part in the ESPN Bracket Buster for the first time in school history, where they will likely face another highly-regarded opponent.
The Patriot League also looks to be strong this season, with Holy Cross playing home-and-home series against each of the seven other teams in the league. That includes a pair of games against 2006 NCAA participant Bucknell, giving the Crusaders at least six contests against NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago.
"This is going to be a real challenging schedule for us," said
Willard. "We go over six weeks without playing a game in the Hart
Center, from November 25 until January 9. That is going to be a
very grueling stretch. But one of the keys to being a good
basketball team is being able to win on the road. So we will
certainly be tested in that regard this season."