Crusaders have strong core

Note: This preview was written before HC's Game Notes were posted showing Alex Vander Baan starting and Tim Clifford coming off the bench, at least for the Crusaders' opener Friday against High Point.

If college basketball begins with guards as Ralph Willard is fond of saying (and who are we to disagree with Ralph?), then it is easy to see why Holy Cross seems to be the consensus pick as the team most likely to challenge Bucknell for the Patriot League title.

With two all-league picks on the wings and two point guards that are as good as any point guards in the league, the Crusaders are loaded in the backcourt. Matter of fact, in a league loaded with talented guards, the Holy Cross backcourt is head and shoulders above every other pack of guards in the league, except for Bucknell’s. Anybody who tries to tell you different is either a basketball illiterate or smoking crack.

In Kevin Hamilton Holy Cross has a guy who was voted the league’s player of the year last season after leading the conference in scoring, three-pointers, steals and, despite standing only 6-4, defensive rebounds. For good measure Hamilton was in the top 10 in the league in assists and rebounding (total).

The casual fan of the game probably is most impressed by Hamilton’s offense, the way he managed to score from almost anywhere on the floor. As comfortable spotting up from the arc as he is putting the ball on the floor and beating his man to the hoop, Hamilton averaged 15.7 points per game as a junior.

Those who study the game a little more are just as appreciative of Hamilton’s defense. Holy Cross had the top defense in the league last season and Hamilton, who ranked eighth nationally in steals, had a lot to do with that.

“Kevin Hamilton is the catalyst for us being a great defensive basketball tea. He can change the game at both ends of the floor. I have not coached a better guard in my 35 years,” Willard said.

Almost as good is Keith Simmons, a 6-4 junior who was named to the all-league team last season despite not starting for Holy Cross. Simmons averaged 12.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and almost 2 assists per game as the Crusaders’ sixth man, a role he will not reprise this season.

“I am stupid but I am not dumb,” said Willard, when asked if Simmons would stay in that sixth man role or move into HC’s starting lineup.

Willard is not at all concerned about Simmons making the adjustment.

“He played starters minutes last year. It’s just he gets his name announced. There will be no adjustment whatsoever. It is just a matter of he will be in for the first four minutes instead of going in after the first four minutes,” Willard said.

At the point, Willard has the luxury of two starter quality guys in junior Torey Thomas and sophomore Pat Doherty. Thomas was the starter at the beginning of last season and ended up starting 22 of the 31 games he played. But when Thomas was injured midseason, Doherty stepped in to fill the void, starting none games, and the Crusaders never missed a beat.

Regardless which one starts, both will see plenty of time.

“I can see Torey and Pat playing together. Torey gives us a great penetrator and Pat gives us a great three-point shooter, so they compliment each other. There’s no jealousy there. They root for one another. Every kid wants to play minutes, but they are both going to play,” Willard said.

In fact, don’t be surprised if you see Thomas, Doherty, Simmons and Hamilton on the floor at the same time.

“I envision us playing four guards a lot this year. I can see them being in the game at the same time. You might say that makes us really small, but the way we defend the post, with the exception of the first half of that championship game, big people don’t really hurt us,” said Willard.

“They really don’t. Chris (McNaughton) had a great game against us in the paint because we let him have a great game. We didn’t double down. I still didn’t figure that one out yet. I am still scratching my head because our game plan was to double right away from the top on him and we never did, the whole first half.”

Willard thinks that four-guard look could be potent on offense, too.

“It is going to make us extremely difficult to guard. Last year, John Hurley meant so much to our basketball team. But honestly, when John was on the floor, it was playing five on four at the offensive end because everybody knew John couldn’t shoot the ball. Whoever was playing John could park in the middle of the lane and take away our driving opportunities. If we play four guards, you are not going to be able to do that. If Keith Simmons is playing the four, you are going to have to have your four man, whoever it is, out there playing him because he will be banging threes on you.”

When you look around the league, you can see why Willard likes that thought. Aside from Bucknell, who would be able to matchup with that look? Only the Bison are deep enough to throw four guards of their own out there without a big dropoff at one, if not two spots.

And other than Bucknell’s McNaughton, and possibly Colgate’s Kendall Chones, who is a big enough offensive threat in the paint to force Willard to play bigger if he doesn’t want to?

That does not mean Willard has to go with that small lineup. With 6-10 sophomore center Tim “the Big Purple Dog” Clifford and 6-7 senior forward Kevin Hyland upfront, Holy Cross potentially is as good down low as anybody in the league.

Hyland’s 4.1 points per game average last season belies his offensive potential. A stat that is a better indicator of his ability with the ball is his 59. 8 shooting from the floor, which would have led the league had he shot enough to hit the three made shots per game minimum needed to make the leaderboard. Hyland had five double figures scoring games last season.

Willard said one key to the Crusaders success will be the ability of Hyland to stay on the floor more.

“The biggest problem Kevin has had over the years is foul trouble. It is stupid stuff. It is stuff he has to eliminate because he is effective in the low post, he really is. He can score. Kevin is going to have to have a senior year like a senior should,” said Willard.

Similarly, Clifford has shown flashes of great potential, like the 13-point, 13-boards double-double he posted at American when starter Nate Lufkin was out with an injury. Clifford had five blocks in that game and finished ranked fifth in the league in rejections, despite playing only nine minutes per game.

Other times, though, he has tended to vanish.

“Tim’s got potential, but he has to be consistent. He is not consistent. He has to stay out of foul trouble. He has to rebound consistently. The American game he had a great rebounding game. There were other games he didn’t touch the basketball, he didn’t go after the ball,” Willard said.

If Clifford and Hyland make the progress Willard hopes they will, Holy Cross will be very good again this year. On the other hand, if Hyland keeps fouling or Clifford regresses like Lehigh’s Jason Mgebroff did as a sophomore, the Crusaders might find it difficult to live up to their accustomed standards.

Especially since Holy Cross has precious little depth in the frontcourt. After Hyland and Clifford, its freshmen Colin Cunningham (6-7), Greg McCarthy (6-10) and Alex Vander Baan, who is really more of a three-man, despite his 6-8 size.

Vander Baan, said Willard, is a “skinny kid but he is very skilled.”

“He has a great nose for offense. He reminds me of John Hurley only he can shoot. John Hurley couldn’t shoot. This kid can shoot the basketball. Eventually he is going to be a heckuva player in this league eventually, but is he a heckuva player right now? No. But he certainly has the potential to be.”

Another freshman, 6-5 Lawrence Dixon, is listed on the roster as a guard. But Dixon, who Willard described as “really strong and athletic and a really good three-point shooter” could also end up seeing time at the four.

The question of depth is the one that worries Willard most.

“The seven kids back, six are the core -- Kevin, Keith, Torey, Pat Dougherty, Kevin Hyland and Tim Clifford --- those six kids are going to be the core of our team. Last year we had 10 kids that were in that situation, now we have six. That is a huge difference,” Willard said.

“We have four freshmen out of 11 players. Three of those freshmen are going to have to give us significant contributions,” Willard said.

If those freshmen step up, Holy Cross should live up to the preseason expectations. If one or two of them step up big time, the Crusaders could even exceed those expectations. If they don’t step up, depth could become a real problem for Holy Cross, especially late in the season.

Only time will tell if the Crusaders are a team that challenges Bucknell for the league title or a team that has to battle to even stay in the upper division.

Holy Cross schedule
Holy Cross roster

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