By Charles Bare
Special to GoHolyCross.com
Heading into the 2011-2012 season, the Holy Cross men's basketball team looks to return to its place as one of the top teams in the Patriot League. The Crusaders are coming off a disappointing season, but they did come on strong in the second half of 2010-2011 to finish in third place in the conference. Holy Cross returns three starters from last season, and 10 out of 14 letterwinners. With the addition of some talented freshmen, the Crusaders have the ingredients necessary to be in the upper echelon of the league.
Holy Cross is coming off a 2010-2011 campaign in which it posted an overall mark of 8-21, for only its third losing record in the last 11 years. The Crusaders did finish third in the Patriot League with a 7-7 mark in conference games, before being upset in the quarterfinals of the Patriot League Tournament.
The Crusaders were an impressive rebounding team last season, leading the conference in rebounds (36.7 rebounds per game) and rebound margin (+3.1 rebounds per game). Holy Cross also developed into one of the better defensive teams in the Patriot League, finishing last year ranked second in the conference in three-point field goal percentage defense (33.7 percent) and blocked shots (3.8 blocks per game), and third in scoring defense (69.0 points per game) and field goal percentage defense (42.9 percent).
If Holy Cross builds off the improvements it made down the stretch last season, expect the Crusaders to be among the Patriot League's best, and in contention for a postseason tournament bid in March.
"We are very energetic and positive about the steps we are taking and the direction we are going," said head coach Milan Brown. "We are looking to make an improvement not only in our record, but in how we play. Now that our upperclassmen have a year of experience playing in our system, they have a very good grasp on what we want to do. If we are able to learn from the mistakes that we had in the past, then we have the ability for this to be a successful season."
Holy Cross returns three of its top perimeter players this season, in what should be one of the Patriot League's top backcourts. Leading the way is senior guard Devin Brown, who earned second team All-Patriot League honors during the 2010-2011 campaign. Brown led the team in scoring last year with an average of 15.4 points per game. He was also one of the team's top shooters, hitting 35.9 percent (60 of 167) of his shots from behind the three-point line and 80.6 percent (104 of 129) of his free throws. Brown finished last season ranked sixth in the Patriot League in scoring, sixth in free throw percentage and fifth in three-pointers made.
"One of the biggest things we are going to need from Devin Brown this season is leadership," said coach Brown. "We know that he can score, and he will need to continue to do that while looking to be more efficient than he was last year. He definitely gives us a marksman from behind the three-point arc, which should help to open things up for the other guys on the court."
The other wing spot sees the return of senior guard Mike Cavataio, who has been one of the team's top all-around players for the last two years. He averaged 8.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists during the 2010-2011 campaign, and also hit 73.5 percent (50 of 68) of his free throws. Cavataio was particularly strong down the stretch a year ago, scoring in double-figures in nine of the last 10 games.
"Mike Cavataio is a great energy guy," said Brown. "He does a lot of the little things that sometimes do not show up on the stat sheet. He is a great rebounder on both ends, is very athletic and is one of our better defenders. We are definitely going to look for him to provide a spark on both ends of the floor."
Joining Brown and Cavataio in the competition for playing time on the wings is junior guard R.J. Evans. The 2008-2009 Patriot League Rookie of the Year, Evans played in just eight games last season, before missing the rest of the campaign due to injury and receiving a medical redshirt. He led the team in scoring two years ago, with an average of 13.4 points per contest, in addition to pulling down 5.1 rebounds per game and ranked second on the team with 74 assists. Evans has totaled 879 career points entering this season, and looks to become Holy Cross' 46th 1,000-point scorer this year.
"R.J. Evans has worked hard to come back from injury," said Brown. "He is one of the better finishers in our league, and is good at making plays off the dribble and getting other people involved. He has also worked his jump shot and his free throw shooting, so we expect to see improvement there. He is a very savvy basketball player who understands the game, and can also provide an emotional list with his junk yard dog mentality."
Junior guard Jordan Stevens will also be an important player in the backcourt, after earning increased playing time as the 2010-2011 season went along. A year ago, he averaged 7.1 points and 2.3 rebounds per contest, while handing out 40 assists and hitting 22 three-point field goals.
"Jordan Stevens is an outstanding outside shooter, and we are looking for him to continue the shoot well," said Brown. "He is also a strong player on the blocks, and might be our best scorer in the post. He brings good size and a certain amount of toughness, so we look forward to seeing him step up for us again this year."
Junior guard Dee Goens looks to earn increased playing time at point guard, after serving as the team's back-up at that spot last season. Goens totaled 58 points and 41 assists for Holy Cross in 2010-2011, with a 1.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
"We are looking for Dee Goens to be a solid point guard for us," said Brown. "His speed and strength are going to be assets for us, and he can also get after people on the defensive end. The biggest thing for him will be to make sure he is a steadying force for us at the point guard spot."
Freshman guard Justin Burrell and Malcolm Miller will also look to break into the rotation for the Crusaders in the backcourt. Burrell, a point guard, averaged 20.0 points, 8.0 assists and 4.0 steals per game during his senior season at Potomac (Va.) High School, before spending one postgraduate season at Fishburne Military (Va.) School. Miller, who will see action on the wing, averaged 13.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.4 steals per contest during his senior year at Gaithersburg (Md.) High School.
"Justin Burrell brings great speed, and he is also very good at handling the ball," said Brown. "We want to make sure that he makes plays for other people on offense and really pressures the basketball on defense. Malcolm Miller is very long and athletic, and could be a real match-up problem for people. If he can develop the strength which is needed to go along with his speed and athleticism, he will be a real asset for us."
Senior walk-on guards Jeff Harris and Charlie Mills will provide added depth in the Crusader backcourt.
At the low post positions, Holy Cross will be led by junior forward Eric Obeysekere. During the 2010-2011 campaign, he led the team and ranked second in the Patriot League with 46 blocked shots, in addition to standing second on the team and eighth in the conference with an average of 5.9 rebounds per game. Obeysekere also averaged 4.7 points per game a year ago.
"Eric Obeysekere can be a difference maker for us, because he is one of the more athletic players in the league," said Brown. "He has the ability to get rebounds, block shots and run the floor, and he is also very skilled on the perimeter. If he can become more consistent for us, his level of play will make a significant jump this season."
Sophomore forward Dave Dudzinski will be in the competition for the other starting spot in the low post, after serving as the first big man off the bench last season. Selected to the Patriot League All-Rookie team, he averaged 4.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game in 2010-2011, while hitting 54.8 percent (51 of 93) of his field goal attempts.
"Dave Dudzinski is the kind of guy who will do anything you ask, and he has a great approach to both games and practices," said Brown. "We are looking for him to be a strong rebounder and defender for us, in addition to being able to score in the low post. He also has the ability to step out and shoot the three, so he can make some plays for us on the perimeter as well."
Junior center Phil Beans also looks to contend for a starting spot, after missing the majority of the 2010-2011 campaign due to injury. He started five games early last season, but then played in just two contests the rest of the way after being injured. Beans was a solid back-up for the Crusaders in 2009-2010, totaling 32 points and 23 rebounds in 28 games off the bench.
"Phil Beans looks to be fully healthy again, and he is also in outstanding shape," said Brown. "He is one of our most skilled post players, and has the ability to score with either hand around the basket. He also plays tough, and is not afraid to bang around with guys in the paint on either end of the floor."
Freshman forward Taylor Abt will also look to earn minutes along the front line. Abt averaged 16.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per contest as a senior at Georgetown (Md.) Preparatory School.
"Taylor Abt is a big strong kid, who is not afraid of contact," said Brown. "He can play physical, and also has the ability to hit jump shots and pull other teams' post players away from the basket."
Freshman walk-on forward Patrick Kerrigan will provide additional depth for Holy Cross in the frontcourt.
Once again this season, the Crusaders will face one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the Patriot League. The home portion of the non-league slate includes games against Hartford, Harvard, New Hampshire, Sacred Heart and San Francisco at the Hart Center, plus a contest against Boston College at the DCU Center.
The non-conference road schedule will be highlighted by trips to Connecticut, Providence, Fairfield and the College of Charleston. Other non-league dates away from home include trips to Columbia, Dartmouth, Maine and Yale.
"I like the fact that we are challenging ourselves in the non-conference portion of our schedule," said Brown. "We are facing a lot of teams with postseason experience, but we are going to take each game as it comes, and build on whatever success we have."
The Patriot League looks to be well balanced this season, with Holy Cross playing home-and-home series against each of the seven other teams in the league. The conference schedule will be highlighted by two contests against Bucknell, which won the 2011 Patriot League Tournament title and earned the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"The Patriot League is going to be very tough this year, because there are so many key players coming back," said Brown. "We are excited about facing that competition, and look to build off of our third place finish last year."