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Holy Cross is trying to take the next step

November 8, 2014 Columns No Comments

WORCESTER, Mass. – Milan Brown says the mantra for Holy Cross is “Take the next step.” Since he arrived on campus, the program has taken many steps to get to where they are now, entering the season as Patriot League contenders once again.

It’s been a long road back to this point.

When Brown took over in 2010 following a one-year stint for Sean Kearney, the program was a far cry from what it was at the beginning of the century. At that time, Holy Cross and Bucknell ruled the Patriot League, with the Crusaders going on a roll first. But as Ralph Willard’s tenure came to a conclusion, the rest of the league was getting better and made up a lot of ground.

Holy Cross came alive as last season went along, and enter this season among the favorites in the Patriot League. The league is in the midst of a nice up cycle, and the improving Crusaders are no small part of that. Two years ago, they slumped to a 4-10 mark in league play, before rebounding last year to 12-6 and reaching the second round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.

So far, this team is doing what a contender should. Practices run more smoothly, the team works like a unit that’s been playing together, and they have a lot of pieces. They are a loose group, though with the understandable sense of urgency as well. There’s a clear defensive identity with this team, not unlike the championship teams during Willard’s tenure.

“Everyone feels pretty comfortable in how we want to play,” said Brown, “and because of that, everyone feels comfortable adding what they can do to what we’re doing.”

Added senior Malcolm Miller: “We’re pretty confident in all the work we put in over the summer, so we just want to get the season rolling and have fun with it.”

It starts with a perimeter unit that will speed teams up all day and will likely feature two point guards starting. Justin Burrell will be a four-year starter when it’s all said and done, and sophomore Anthony Thompson will start alongside him. Thompson was a big part of the Crusaders’ run last year, first serving as an energy guy before he turned into so much more and working his way into the starting lineup. They will be a small but effective tandem.

There’s much more where that comes from, with junior Cullen Hamilton ready to bounce back after injuries limited him to 18 games a year ago. Originally just a shooter when he arrived on campus, his body is more mature and his game is much more diversified now, the result of a tireless work ethic to ot only rehab his knee injury last year but also to get better doing whatever he could within his physical limitations while rehabbing. Junior Eric Green will have a big role first as an ace defender, second as an improving offensive player. The Crusaders started both in Friday night’s exhibition against cross-town rival Assumption College.

On the wing, there are a few options, starting with Green and Miller. The latter is long and athletic and has shown signs of becoming the offensive threat he’s capable of being; defense was never a problem for him. The senior can play both forward spots depending on matchups. Robert Champion missed some time with an injury last year, but he could find a way into the rotation as well.

The frontcourt lacks a true post scoring option with the graduation of Dave Dudzinski, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Also, other than Lehigh’s Tim Kempton, there isn’t a whole lot of proven post offense in the league. Senior Taylor Abt is hardly a star, but has grown into a steady contributor at both ends of the floor. He’s active, his body has matured and he’s tougher. Miller calls him their “defensive foundation,” and the staff says it’s instructive to watch only him at times when they’re defending to see how important he is. Malachi Alexander had a fine freshman season and will get plenty of minutes, and he has a bright future ahead.

Holy Cross is a veteran-laden team, but the only freshman on the team, Mitchell Hahn, has impressed thus far. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that he could get some minutes up front. The staff has also been intrigued all along by sophomore Matt Husek, but he’s needed to get his body ready for the rigors of college basketball.

The Crusaders won’t be in the Hart Center much in non-league play, as they have just four home games. They will host Brown, who is on the rise in the Ivy League, and America East contender Hartford among them. There are challenges away from home, starting with the season opener against Ivy League favorite Harvard at the Boston Garden, then continuing with trips to Syracuse, America East contender Albany and Pittsburgh.

Brown is one of the best dressers among coaches, and a very likable and easy-going guy. When he followed legendary coach Jim Phelan at Mount St. Mary’s, he needed some time to get the program back to contender status and ultimately the NCAA Tournament. He did it. Now, in year five at Holy Cross, he has them in contention for a Patriot League title. There have been some tough times in Worcester in recent years, and he’s done all he can to remain a steady hand through it all. Now the program has taken a positive turn, and the next step is right in front of this team.

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