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2006-07 Preview

2006-07 Preview: Holy Cross Crusaders

8 November, 2006


It seems like Holy Cross is never in “win now” mode. While Bucknell, American and Lehigh are eager to succeed this year before losing a slew of seniors, Holy Cross is set to start a junior and two sophomores, with the entire bench having at least one more year of eligibility. However, this is the senior year for super scorer Keith Simmons and point guard Torey Thomas, and with the graduation losses of Charles Lee and Kevin Bettencourt at Bucknell, Crusader fans think this is the year they return to the Big Dance. Holy Cross can do so if they can keep Simmons and other key players on the court all year.

Torey Thomas is the prototype of an aggressive, always-moving point guard. Thomas scored 11.0 points per game last year, good for third on the team, and added 5.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game. His aggressiveness on defense frustrated opposing guards, and his movement in transition gave the Crusaders easy buckets. Thomas was occasionally too quick to shoot on offense, though. His field goal percentage of 39.2 isn’t horrible, but after watching him you’d expect better. If Thomas is more judicious with his shots, he will be deadly. As it is, if he has a repeat of last season, he will be among the best players in the league, a threat in many ways.
Rating: OOOO

With Kevin Hamilton graduated, Keith Simmons assumes the role of alpha male offensively for Holy Cross. Simmons is arguably the best scorer in the Patriot League; he converted 52.5 percent of his field goal attempts last year, including 47.6 of his treys. His efficiency should go down a bit as teams can now focus their defense on Simmons, but that shouldn’t slow him down too much. In addition to his scoring prowess, Simmons brings good rebounding (5.2 per game last year) and versatility. At 6-5 and 205 lbs., Simmons can act as a forward alongside a small backcourt or play the 2-guard in taller lineups. Simmons has had trouble with full-body cramping during the entirety of his college career, and it occasionally keeps him off the floor. Look for Ralph Willard to limit Simmons’s minutes early in games, in an effort to keep him fresh for late-game situations.

It’s not yet clear who will be the fifth member of Holy Cross’s starting lineup this year, but preseason indications point to Pat Doherty. Doherty is a sophomore who missed most of last year with plantar fasciitis. He’s expected back at full strength but basketball players who suffer from that affliction occasionally have it flare up again, so the coaching staff will be careful with Doherty. He’s a point guard by nature, so it will take some time for he and Thomas to adjust to playing together. Holy Cross has potentially a very good wing combination in Doherty and Simmons, but lingering health questions for both have the potential to hold the Crusaders back.
Rating: OOO1/2

Center Tim Clifford began to develop last season, becoming an efficient (49.5 percent) scorer from the floor and big defensive presence with 1.5 blocks per game. At 6-10 and 270 lbs., Clifford has the size and brawn to push around most of the Patriot League’s frontcourts. Clifford should continue to develop his skills this year, if he can stay on the floor for extended periods. Foul trouble and stamina issues limited his use last year. With a little more discipline and wind, Clifford can play more minutes and cause big problems for opposing frontcourts.

Sophomore Alex Vander Baan played a huge role for Holy Cross last year, starting 30 games and grabbing 5.0 rebounds per game. Vander Baan added some bulk this year, which should help him withstand punishment in the low post. Just as last year, Vander Baan will not be asked to carry much of the scoring load; instead he is expected to provide rebounds, play tight defense and do the little things for the Crusaders. It’s a role that Vander Baan excelled in last year, and there’s every reason to believe he will continue to do so.
Rating: OOO1/2

The player most likely to step into the starting lineup if anything goes wrong in the backcourt is sophomore shooter Colin Cunningham. Cunningham also had injury troubles, breaking his nose last season then injuring his ankle in the off-season. When healthy, Cunningham is tall and quick, and plays well in offensive schemes. Alongside him on the bench is Lawrence Dixon, a sophomore guard who battled asthma last season. Dixon is a fair shooter and a good defensive player, who could see major minutes if his asthma problem does not keep him off the court. Returnees Kyle Cruze and Victor Vaval are expected to play slightly larger roles this year. Cruze is an energetic defender, and Vaval is a pass-first point guard. Freshmen Zach Paterick and Nate Cornish will also get some backcourt minutes.

Up front, Holy Cross will get bench minutes from three freshmen and a little-used sophomore. Greg McCarthy, the lone frontcourt bench returnee, is the tallest Crusader at 6-11. He will back up Clifford and try to act as a powerful defensive presence under the basket. Freshman Andrew Keister has a good mid-range shot that can draw defenders away from the post, and quick hands on defense. He will be Vander Baan’s main backup. Freshmen Eric Meister, a very good rebounder and post player, and Adam May, a great three-point shooter, round out the Crusader bench.
Rating: OOO

Coaching Track Record
It’s tough to argue with success. In seven years at Holy Cross, Ralph Willard has seen three NCAA Tournaments and led the team to a postseason victory in the 2005 NIT. With all his success at Worcester, Willard has all but erased his struggles at Pitt from his biography. Willard has consistently shown the ability to get everything he can from his teams. He’s primed for a very good year this year, with an experienced backcourt and Tim Clifford in the middle. If the last seven years are any indication, Willard’s Crusaders will at least play up to their talent level, if not above it.
Rating: OOO1/2

Holy Cross scheduled a very ambitious start to the season. Between now and the start of Patriot League play, the Crusaders travel to Syracuse, Dayton, Duke and Providence, and face Siena and George Mason at home. They will be tested early and often. On Jan. 12, Holy Cross hosts Bucknell, in a game that could set the tone for the season. If Bucknell wins in Worcester, it will be hard for the Crusaders to climb back over the Bison in league standings.
Rating: OOO1/2

The season is likely to come down to Simmons’s sweat glands, Doherty’s foot, Cunningham’s ankle and Dixon’s lungs. If they all stay on the court, Holy Cross is very deep and tough to beat. If any of them miss time, exploitable weaknesses develop in the Crusaders.

Best-case scenario: Everyone stays healthy, Clifford develops into the best big man in the league, and Holy Cross wins the Patriot League going away with a 13-1 record.

Worst-case scenario: Injuries flare up everywhere, Clifford continues to run into foul trouble, and the Crusaders skid to an 8-6 league record.

Most likely scenario: Simmons leads the league in scoring, a few guys are out a few games each with health problems, but Willard leads his charges to an 11-3 record and a share of the Patriot League crown.
Rating: OOO1/2

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