Pieces for success are there if Holy Cross can fit them together
LAST SEASON : 8-21 (.563)
CONFERENCE RECORD: 7-7 (3rd)
STARTERS LOST/RETURNING: 2/3
2010-11 FINISH: Lost in Patriot first round
COACH : Milan Brown (Howard ‘93)
RECORD AT SCHOOL : 8-21 (1 year)
CAREER RECORD: 103-141 (8 years)
VIDEOO: Holy Cross coach Milan Brown discusses the upcoming season during Patriot League media day (Patriot League video)
The pieces are there this year in Worcester.
Three starters from last year’s team return, including leading scorer Devin Brown, an All-Patriot League performer who averaged 15.4 points per game in a breakout campaign last season. Add in two other would-have-been-starters who missed all, or most of last season due to injuries and an awfully talented rotation begins to emerge.
That rotation looks even better when you learn two of those returning starters will come off the bench this year, thanks to the emergence of a young big man and the return of R.J. Evans (more on him in a moment).
Start with Brown, who became the Crusaders go-to guy when Evans was forced to the sidelines by a sports hernia that limited him to just eight games a year ago.
The 6-1 senior is one of few players in the Patriot League that possesses the ability to score from anywhere on the floor.
“He is explosive. He can create and make shots. He is a three-point shooter who can get to the basket and finish at the rim,” says HC coach Milan Brown.
Devin Brown ranked sixth in the league in scoring, overall. In conference play his average rose to 17.6 points per game, which ranked behind only Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum and the now-graduated Vlad Moldeveanu of American.
On the other wing will be Evans, a former Patriot League Rookie of the Year who appeared in eight games before a sports hernia forced him to take a medical redshirt.
Evans led the team in scoring (13.4 ppg) as a sophomore and ranked sixth in the league. He is a pure slasher, as athletic as anybody in the conference when healthy, capable of playing above the rim. His role will change a little now that Brown has assumed the go-to-guy mantle.
“R.J. can be one of the best defenders in the league. He is so strong, you can’t screen him. It’s just a matter of his will to not be screened,” the coach says.
And Evans will still get his points. He is the type of athlete that is tailor-made for the giddy-up-and-go way Milan Brown wants to play. Expect him to be on the finishing end a lot in transition if things go Coach MB has planned.
With Evans taking the second wing spot, 6-4 senior Mike Cavataio will come off the bench as the Crusaders’ sixth man. It is a role a guy like Cavataio might be ideally suited for.
As a two-year starter, Cavataio has been what Milan Brown calls the Crusaders’ “energy guy.” A capable scorer and solid defender, he’s well suited for that boost off the bench role. Milan Brown also says Cavataio is physically strong enough to defend a lot of the league’s undersized four men, which will give the coach the option of subbing him in the frontcourt if he wants a small, faster lineup on the floor.
Like Evans, Cavataio is another guy built for the running game. He’s fast, has hops and knows how to make plays above the rim. He also knows how to take care of the ball – a rarity last season for HC. Cavataio was one of just three Holy Cross players who had more assists than turnovers. If he can improve his jump shot a little, Cavataio is potentially an all-league player.
Eric Obeysekere is another guy who is built for Milan Brown’s uptempo style. The coach says the 6-8 junior is “head-to-toe our best athlete.” Brown even thinks Obeysekere is quick enough to guard threes on the perimeter.
Don’t expect to see Obeysekere roaming too far from the paint, though. Only Bucknell’s Mike Muscala blocked more shots than EO a year ago.
There are not many. The most glaring might be the Crusaders’ poor shooting from the arc.
It’s hard to be a top tier team these days if you can’t shoot threes, and aside from Devin Brown and junior guard Jordan Stevens, the Crusaders lack three-point threats. Those guys are the only ones on the roster who made more than five treys last season when Holy Cross was seventh in the eight-team Patriot in three-point shooting percentage last season.
At 6-5, Stephens is a versatile weapon. He can knock down jumpers and is big enough to post up the smaller guards who tend to populate Patriot League backcourts.
But with Evans back, and Cavataio taking over Stevens’ role from last season as the first guard off the bench, it remains to be seen of Milan Brown can find Stevens enough minutes to maintain the kind of rhythm it takes to be a true sniper.
Another question, and perhaps the most important one HC must answer if it wants to contend for the league title, is how quickly can freshman point guard Justin Burrell adjust to college hoops.
Burrell played with a number of Division I recruits at Fishburne Militay Academy last season, against a schedule that included other prep powerhouses filled with D-I caliber players. He also played at that level with two vaunted AAU programs – Boo Williams and D.C. Assault. Milan Brown says Burrell will be ready to handle the transition.
But adjusting to Division I play, even at the Patriot League level, involves more than just having skills and athletic ability.
There is little doubt Burrell has the tools. Burrell is listed at 5-8 on the HC roster. Milan Brown smiles and says “wink-wink” when asked if Burrell is really that tall. But he is sprinter fast and gives HC yet another athletic piece for its running game.
Burrell originally signed to play for Milan Brown at Mount St. Mary’s after an all-state career at Potomac high in Dunfries, Va..When Brown left the Mount for Holy Cross, Burell was granted a release from his letter of intent. He spent last prepping at Fishburne before following Brown to New England.
“We don’t have a starting point guard back, so we might have Justin in there 25 minutes right off the bat,” says Milan Brown, insisting it is “not a question of if he will be good, just a question of when.”
For HC to contend, the answer will have to be right away.
The Crusaders do have a second option at the point in junior Dee Goens, who played 10 minutes a game backing Andrew Beinert last year. But Brown has chosen to give Burrell the keys to the race car right from the start.
Goens will get minutes. Like Burrell, he is also a kid with a jet pack.
“At the point guard spot, for 40 minutes we are going to be fast,” says Milan Brown. “We’ll have a lot of speed at that spot.”
If that speed can translate into easy buckets in transition, the Crusaders should have a very potent offense. But if it is used more to get back on defense after turnovers, or missed shots from the arc, it will be a very different story.
Aside from Burrell’s opportunity at the point, the biggest opening in the Crusaders’ lineup is in the post, where somebody needs to fill the big shoes left empty by the graduation of three-time all-leaguer Andrew Keister.
When he was healthy, and even a lot of times when he was not, Keister was a close to a constant as HC has had the past three seasons. The coaches came and went. The big man abided.
Phil Beans was the starter at the four in five of the Crusaders’ first six games last season before a foot injury cut his season short. Many expected he would slide over to replace Keister.
The 6-9, 233-pound junior is big and strong enough to bang with any big men on the Crusaders schedule. Offensively he is the team’s best back-to-the-basket scorer. beans has also been known to step all the way out to the arc for a jumper.
But he won’t be the starter when HC tips the season at the College of Charleston. That job has been won by 6-9 sophomore Dave Dudzinski who averaged 4.6 points and 2.8 rebounds in 14 minutes per game off the bench as a freshman.
Nobody expects Dudzinski to play 40 minutes per game, but those freshman stats look pretty impressive if you do a little math – it works out to 13 points and 8 rebounds per 40 minutes, which helps explain why he was selected to the all-rookie team.
Beans will certainly still get plenty of minutes, and the three-man rotation of Beans, Dudzinski and Obeysekere has a chance to be good as any frontline in the conference.
The biggest question about Holy Cross is more psychological than physical.
HC seemed loaded with talent the past two seasons, too, yet managed only single digit win totals both campaigns. And last season, in 13 games decided by two possessions or less, the ‘Saders went 2-11.
Most observers chalk up the struggles of the past two years to the fact that the team’s current seniors have had a different head coach in each of their three seasons. Conventional wisdom holds that playing for Brown a second straight year should solve a lot of those woes.
Still, until they start looking as good on the floor as they do on paper, questions will linger. Is this bunch overrated? Are there chemistry problems that keep this bunch from playing anywhere near the expected level.
Until they prove otherwise, there will remain doubts.
If a second year in Milan Brown’s system has the settling effect many anticipate, the Crusaders will be a threat to dethrone defending champ and preseason favorite Bucknell.
If not, there is the threat of another long, cold winter on the hill overlooking Worcester.