Team preview: Holy Cross

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 20, 2004, 4:57 PM ET
Blue Ribbon Yearbook

Editor's Note: Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, long known as the Bible of college basketball, to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams.

COACH AND PROGRAM

Coach Ralph Willard rattles off numbers about his Holy Cross basketball team like some roundball Rainman.

The Crusaders were seventh in the nation in scoring defense (58.6 ppg allowed), 7th in steals (10.7 per game) but 279th in offense (63.1) and a horrid 322nd in free-throw percentage (.592).

So what Holy Cross has to do this year,is improve that offense and ratchet up that defense another notch to the 2002-03 levels when the Crusaders led the nation, allowing just .407 percent shooting, and not coincidentally when they won the Patriot League championship. The defense, definitely the defense.

"We have a little more quickness than we've had in the past and we have good shot-blocking," said Willard, who guided HC to Patriot League crowns in 2001, 2002, and 2003. "We were seventh in the country in steals and we didn't press. The key for us is we have to extend the defense and make it even better and I think we can do that."

PLAYERS

They'll do it without All-Patriot League fixture Jave Meade, the Crusaders' point guard the last four years. Meade graduated after another super season, averaging 9.4 points and a team-high 5.5 assists per game, and finishing as Holy Cross' all-time leader in assists and steals.

But while Meade is missing from the mix, Willard has four starters back, plus a good blend of senior leadership and young talent. But what Willard wants most of all is a return to the physical style of play that made the Crusaders the class of the Patriot League for three seasons and three times had them on the brink of a big first round upset in the NCAA Tournament.

"We were in the top 10 in rebounding margin for three years in a row and last year we went to 122," said Willard, back to the numbers. "That shows a lack of physicality. We've got four seniors, so if there's a time we're going to get it done, it's now. I know last year was disappointing for them."

Two of those seniors return up front in 6-11 Nate Lufkin (8.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and 6-7 John Hurley (8.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg). Lufkin, the 2001 PL Rookie of the Year, hasn't lived up to the expectations that came with that award. He has been solid most of the time, but if he bumps his game up a notch or two this year, Holy Cross could again be something special.

Lufkin is actually a power forward playing center and Hurley is a big guard playing power forward, but they're the best options at those positions. Hurley is a hustler that gives the team energy, rebounds, drawn charges and floor burns.

Junior Kevin Hyland (2.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg) has shown some flashes but the Crusaders could use a more consistent contribution from the 6-8 forward. Likewise, 6-6 Joe Young (1.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg) should step into a larger role as a sophomore.

"We still don't have that one guy that can carry us night-in and night-out," Willard said. "We're going to have to do it by committee. We have some offensive issues to address before we can become a really good team, too. We're not even a good offensive team right now."

That said Willard has his top scorer, Kevin Hamilton (11.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg), back. The 6-3 junior wing is a classic New York City guard. He can shoot from deep and is a good passer with a great feel for the game. His play-at both ends-will be a key this year.

The other wing guard, Greg Kinsey (5.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg), is also back. The 6-3 senior's a team leader and a sticky defender but he's another guy not noted for his offense, another reason Hamilton's so important.

Sophomore Keith Simmons (8.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg) was on the PL All-Freshman team last year and was the Crusaders' third leading scorer. He could be another key this year, likely to see more than the 18 minutes a game he played last season. He stayed in Worcester over the summer to work in the weight room and get stronger.

The big question for Holy Cross is at point guard. Another sophomore, Torey Thomas (5.1 apg, 2.1 rpg, 1.5 apg) is back after caddying for Meade. The 5-11 New York native will get a challenge from incoming freshman Pat Doherty. Doherty, a 5-10 product of Scranton, Pa., is a lot like Thomas in terms of quickness, ability to penetrate and push the ball up the floor.

"They're both very quick," Willard said. "We're going to take advantage of that by pushing the ball more than we have in the past. Where we're really going to miss Jave is in the half court, because he was so good at reading defenses and creating stuff for other people. That's the area they're really going to have improve on as the year goes on."

Sophomore Josh Kramer (3.3 ppg, 0.9 rpg), a 6-6 forward, and senior walk-on Don Brault (0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg), a 6-3 guard, round out the returnees.

Joining Doherty in the freshman class, 6-10 Tim Clifford of Walpole, Mass., may not make much of a splash this year but Willard thinks he might have a big future. "I think Tim's going to be a heck of a player down the road," said the coach, who has established a virtual assembly line of big men at Holy Cross the last five years. "He's 6-10, 260, a great body that just needs to get rid of a little baby fat and add some muscle. But he's got great hands and a great attitude."

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B
BENCH/DEPTH: B-
FRONTCOURT: C+
INTANGIBLES: B

The Crusaders' great run in the Patriot League is still fresh in the minds of many on this team and around the league. While they crashed to a 7-7 league mark last year, no one looks forward to going toe-to-toe with Willard's big bunch, even if he says they're not as physical as they once were.

If Lufkin grows back into his game and becomes a dominating force, watch out for this team. Thomas needs to come through in the backcourt and will somebody -- anybody -- please hit some free throws to improve that dismal .592 shooting at the line?

But the Crusaders can and will defend, and that trait will keep them in a lot of games. With 7-5 Neil Fingleton gone, Willard envisions pushing that defense out more to press and trap and generally create havoc, something they can do with a quick and deep perimeter.

Holy Cross doesn't look so deep around the basket, though, and injuries to big men could spell disaster. Willard liked the effort he got from the team last year, though he said his players made it tougher on themselves by struggling so much offensively.

"The effort was there, we were just never able to put it together offensively and reward the effort," he said. "If we're going to be successful this year, we have to reward the effort." In other words, put the ball in the hole.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ALSO SEE

MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM