His team battled back after a tough home loss against Bucknell to defeat Lehigh and claim the No. 2 seed in the Patriot League tournament, avoiding a five hour bus ride by gaining the homecourt advantage for the first two rounds of the tournament. His lineup includes three all-league picks and another kid who made the All-Rookie team. The fifth starter is a 6-10 giant who came on in conference play to establish himself as one of the top big men in the league.
So why isn’t Ralph Willard smiling?
Probably because the veteran Holy Cross coach knows all too well how fragile his team’s situation is as it tries to return to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five seasons.
All season long the Crusaders have been held together by trainers tape and Ace bandages, persevering through a run of injuries and health woes that would have relegated most teams to the second division. Sophomore point guard Pat Doherty, last season’s Rookie of the Year has missed almost the entire season with a foot injury that just would not heal. Freshman forward Colin Cunningham is just now getting fully acclimated on the court after having his early season minutes severely limited by a broken nose that slowed his development. And that’s just the guys on the bench.
Two-time all-league pick Keith Simmons has labored through an odd cramping problem that has limited his minutes much of the season, starting point guard Torey Thomas started one game with a bruised knee and strained a groin during that game, heroically playing through both injuries in no small part because with Doherty out, the Crusaders had no other point guard. Kevin Hamilton, a three-time all-league pick and last season’s Player of the Year has played through injuries to a toe, a hip and his back, not to mention a bout with the flu.
All the injuries made it tough for Willard’s team to develop on court chemistry, limiting both the time and intensity of the practices.
Still, they battled through all of that to earn the homecourt edge for the first two rounds of the tournament, only to see its odds of advancing to the final lengthened considerably by yet another injury.
“We are going into that game with a question mark about Kevin Hamilton,” Willard told the reporters on the phone line for Wednesday’s pre-tournament media conference call.
“He received a blow to the jaw at the last part of the Lehigh game. He has a sprained capsule where the jawbone meets. I am not sure of the technical term. All I know is he can’t eat anything solid; hasn’t eaten anything solid since Sunday. (Tuesday) he tried to practice and got whacked there again. He is going to spend the day today trying to get fitted for some kind of special mask that would afford him some protection. We’re not sure how that is going to go, so his status for Friday, right now, is questionable. It leaves us with some possible adjustments we will have to make going into the tournament.”
Hamilton has said he is going to play, but Willard is not as certain. Even if Hamilton does manage to take the court for Friday night’s opening round game against Navy, Willard won’t know until the game is actually underway how well or how long the league’s leading scorer will be able to play.
“I’ll be honest with you. (Tuesday) he got hit and he was in agony. There were tears rolling down his eyes. Kevin is a tough kid. He doesn’t cry. And there were tears rolling down his eyes from the pain. He hasn’t been able to eat. He really hasn’t had any solid food. My wife made him some stuff last night and put it in a blender and I brought it to school with me because he’s not eating. My question is how effective he is going to be even if he is able to be even if he can play, how effective he will be with probably not practicing from now until the game,” Willard said.
Complicating matters is the fact that Hamilton is Holy Cross’ emergency point guard when Thomas sits down. That only happens when Thomas gets into foul trouble for the most part. Thomas has been playing close to 40 minutes most nights. But now, even that backup point guard situation becomes cloudy for HC.
“It is a double-edged sword and now with Kevin’s situation, I don’t know if I am going to be able to do that. I’m asking Kevin to play 40 minutes, too. Obviously, when you have somebody that is leading in scoring, steals and rebounds, you want to have that guy fresh at the end of the game, too. We’re really in a Catch-22 with both of those guys. Both are obviously great at stealing the basketball and great defensive players, but they have had to scale back how many chances they can take because I can’t afford either one of them to get in foul trouble . . . I’d love to get Torey some rest, but right now we don’t have that luxury,” Willard said.
Simmons is another question mark. It has been over a month since he suffered the severe full body cramping he experienced earlier in the season. But he has still been forced to the bench in key late stretches in games against Lehigh and Bucknell.
“The cramping issue is something we don’t know from game to game. He has that condition where he loses a lot of sodium. There is nothing you can do about it except change your diet, hydrate and electrolyte. We’ve done all of those things. Keith is just having to deal with it,” Willard said.
“I’m trying to give him blows around the timeouts in order to give him a two, three, four minute blow during the course of the game. The problem with that is, he has to ride the bike in the locker room at halftime — I’m sure he’d rather do that than listen to me speak anyway-- because we can’t let him cool down too much. At the same time I’ve got to get his heart rate down so he doesn’t perspire too much. We’re walking a fine line with Keith. He’s done an outstanding job.”
Not knowing who will be available, or for how many minutes, is a challenge Willard and his staff are hoping they can overcome.
“I don’t know Kevin’s status or how much he will be able to play and, obviously, I don’t know how much Keith is going to be able to play. When you have your two best offensive weapons thrown into question, we have to do some preparation for this game, no question,” Willard said.
Thank heavens the league’s current tournament schedule has a day off on Saturday before Sunday’s semifinals.
“ The fact that you have a day off in between (quarterfinals and semifinals) is certainly a big plus. It is good for preparation, but more importantly, in our situation, with Keith’s cramping situation and the fact Torey and Kevin have had to play 40 minutes just about every game for the last two months, the day off is certainly going to be very helpful to this team. In years past it probably wouldn’t have made that much of a difference because we were much deeper,” Willard said.
Navy coach Billy Lange said he expects Hamilton to play in the tournament opener, and to play well.
“They have a certain sense of toughness there in that Holy Cross basketball program. He will be ready to play,” Lange said.
“That kid (Hamilton) is a warrior. To me he has been injured all year, with his turf toe and he was sick at the beginning of the year. That kid, to me, is one of the best players, in terms of overall basketball players, that I have seen. He could play on any team in any league and have any different role and be effective. We’re going to anticipate he is going to play because he is a senior and has been a great player for Ralph for four years.”SCOUTING NAVY --
Here is Willard’s take on the Midshipmen:
“(Navy) plays very hard. They really get after you. They play a lot of people, which concerns me since we can get worn down, especially in our situation right now. When Navy shoots the ball well, they are a good basketball team. That has been an issue with them all year. When they shoot the ball well, they can beat anybody.SCOUTING HOLY CROSS --
“I don’t want to tell you what they will have to do to beat us. Billy knows that already, I don’t want to give him any other ideas. But I know what we have to do, we have to guard them. We have to guard them and take away their three-point shooting, Sprink, and the lefty kid that plays the four spot for them (Adam Teague), and Kina and Johnson, but we’re going to have to guard those people on the perimeter. And we are going to have to do a good job on Fannin, who is a warrior. When they shoot the ball well they are a good basketball team.”
Lange’s view of Holy Cross:
“I tell my staff this about Holy Cross all the time: you don’t beat them doing one thing well. You don’t say you are going to out-execute them and outsmart them. You are not going to do that because they do that at a very high level. You’re not going to out-tough them because they are a very physical team and play very hard. You’ve got to play a very, very good basketball game and hope you can contain their ability to score in spurts. INSTANT REMATCHES --
“They have a time in the game in every game where they really try to impose their will on you and you have to fight them. That is what you have to do. It might be the difference between us trailing by six and not letting their will get them up by 17 and maybe they just get up by eight. Or maybe we can keep it to a six or four point game and have a chance. But there is not just one thing. They are incredibly balanced, incredibly smart, incredibly well coached. You have to play a very, very good game to beat Holy Cross, especially on their home floor in a tournament setting.
“That is the problem when you play a team like Holy Cross. They’re balanced. Their identity is they are a basketball team. We have to play better on both ends. I want our kids to be confident. I want us to think that we can defend them, but we’re going to have to play hard and have the ability to make some shots at some key points and not let the game get away from us.”
In an interesting scheduling quirk, both first round games at the Bucknell pod will feature teams that played each other in the final game of the regular season.
In the first game, No. 5 Lafayette faces No. 4 American, which won the right to wear home whites for this game by virtue of a 77-67 win over the Leopards Saturday. The nightcap features regular season champ Bucknell and cellar dweller Army. Bucknell posted a 70-47 win over the Black Knights in that regular season finale.
After losing twice to Bucknell, Army coach Jim Crews knows he needs to look for another formula. At the same time, though, he is hesitant to make many changes at this late date in the season.
“We’ve evaluated what we need to do ourselves, and our scouting reports to see what we can do to make adjustments. You can’t make a whole lot of difference,” Crews said. “You can work on things. Sometimes human nature says hey, let’s change this, change this and change that and you can tweak this and change that. But you can’t make wholesale changes at this time. It is not fair to your kids.”
Lafayette lost twice to American in the regular season. But Leopards coach Fran O’Hanlon, like Crews, is not planning any wholesale changes.
“I know it is going to sound pretty simple, but we need to shoot better. We played much better this time around than we did the first time. They clearly outplayed us and we were never in the game. This time we were in the game. We did not shoot the ball as well as we can shoot it,” O’Hanlon said.
“For us, two things that have plagued us this year have been rebounding and taking care of the basketball. I am not sure whether we are going to do a great job rebounding because of our size. But we really need to take care of the basketball and when we get open shots, hopefully we knock them down. I know that is a simplistic look at the game, but it is really a realistic look.”
American coach Jeff Jones agrees shooting the ball will be a key.
“We know that we’ve got our hands full. Anyone that saw our game against Lafayette the other day knows how hard-fought that game was and how fortunate we were to win. We shot the ball extremely well. Had we not shot well, it could have been a different outcome for sure,” Jones said.
Flannery is not certain that beating Army twice gives his Bison a big advantage in the postseason.
“Having just played (Army), and Lafayette and American are going through the same thing, it is the kind of thing were the bumps and bruises from each other are very fresh. I am sure Army will come in here with a lot of confidence. They have chased our guys around and our guys have chased them around,” Flannery said.SCOUTING BUCKNELL --
Here is Crews’ take on the Bison:
”You play guys twice. You play them once, and then you try to make some changes and adjustments and work on some things that hurt you the first time. The thing that makes Bucknell well is that when you make those adjustments, and take away one or two areas that you do better in, then something else opens up. That is where they are strong. They are strong inside and outside. They are strong defensively and they are strong on the bench. That is why they had their season. SCOUTING ARMY --
“They have always been well set-up. They have always played hard. They are well organized. They have a system and they believe in the system. They have so many weapons individually and collectively. As you do better in certain areas, all of a sudden something else pops up.That is what makes a good team. Their kids have done a great job of growing over the years.
“Lee is a kid, if I remember right, he has just developed so much as a player over the four years. He knows he has put the work in, the same with Bettencourt. Bettencourt came in kind of on fire in this league. Here’s a kid that is part of something that is bigger than him, and he has accepted that, where maybe it was a little bit more about him four years ago.
“That’s certainly what it is all about. They get it. They understand it. They get it.”
Flannery on the Black Knights:
”Coach Crews is tremendous getting them ready and the stuff that they do, and as a person as well. Army is the kind of team, they post hard, they shoot the ball, they play to the wall hard. That is what we are getting ready for. We are going to have to match that and make sure that we are ready to go after these couple days we have been off.MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW --
”Seeing Army, and seeing how they have played at times, with games all during the course of the year, you see them during the season and on tape and they can score with people in the league and defend people in the league. We know they are very capable.
”Jarell (Brown), up at Army, really got off on us and scored very well. Down here at our place the last time, we did a little better job on him, whether it was us defending or his shooting. He really got our respect when we came in here. Their other kids, like Bell and Bates and these guys, are capable scorers if you spend too much time. They are hard to guard in spots and it starts with him because he stretches the floor so well.
”Each game is in itself a game. Without going into coaching talk, we went up to Army, they came here and now this is the third one, that will be a playoff atmosphere. That is something you can't simulate regardless how many times you play somebody. Familiarity in the league alone creates a lot of real good matchups and a lot of competition. Now you go to a third time and you know each other even better. You will see many teams that their first and second teams get into practice and they really compete. Many times in the league, no matter who is playing who, you get to know each other and you get to know where kids are going, what you are trying to take away. Also the coaches have been banging it into you. That's what I said about having a week to get ready. It will be a real good matchup.”
In his own words, Jeff Jones’ assessment of American’s season:
“It has been a challenging one, in that things did not come as quickly or as easily as maybe sometimes in the past with more veteran or experienced players. The biggest thing for me has been trying to be patient. Not patient in the sense that it is going to take them a while to get it. What I have seen, and at times has been a little bit hard for me to understand, is that I will see us as a team, or some individuals, do some things extremely well, whether it be in practice or in game situations, and then all of a sudden, the next day, or the next half sometimes, just not perform up to those standards.ROLL OUT THE CLICHES --
“Quite honestly, I think I had to reassess my own expectations for the team after the tough early start that we had. There is no question that I did a poor job of scheduling. What we did, with essentially our first seven games, not just being on the road, but being on the road against really strong competition, that would not necessarily have been a very good schedule for a veteran team. We lost some confidence during that time. We came out of it a little bit shell-shocked and our development was not what we would have liked.
“I remember mentioning to one of our assistant coaches sometime at the end of January that we were finally making some progress, but we were probably a full month behind of where we initially thought, or hoped, we would be.
“Give the kids credit. After that tough start, we certainly were all disappointed, but they hung in there. There haven’t been very many days that the guys showed up and weren’t ready to practice. There has been a lot of good spirit on the team. I think that is indicative of the leadership that Andre Ingram and Craig Weinstein, and some of the other upperclassmen exhibited to make sure we didn’t get down. Maybe our record wasn’t what we had been hoping for coming into the season, but we still had a chance to turn things around, get them headed in the right direction, and be playing much better at the tail end of the season.”
“This is an exciting time of the year to be in the postseason tournament. All of us at American are very excited and looking forward to Friday.” – Jeff Jones
“This is a great time of the year. Our team is really excited about the prospects of the Patriot League Tournament.” – Billy Taylor
“We’re obviously very excited about this tournament. The Patriot League Tournament is a thing that we all point to as coaches and players.” – Emmett Davis
“We’re very excited about the Patriot League Tournament. We realize we have an incredible opponent in front of us in Holy Cross, a program we have great respect for. We admire their toughness and the way they play together.” – Billy Lange
“We are looking forward to our game on Friday. We really respect our opponent, Navy, and how hard they play.” – Ralph Willard
Yes Ralph, but are you excited?COACHES ON PLAYERS --
“Both (Charles Lee and Kevin Bettencourt) are kind of interesting guys. I have been around here for a while now and you see sometimes seniors, as you go into the tournament, and I know I have talked to other coaches in the league, they are on the job market and they have things going on. Everybody is so interview conscious at schools like our's, and the rest of the Patriot League. These two guys, Kevin and Charles, have been basketball kids. They are kids who have done the work academically-- they are both over 3.0, one is on the Dean's, the other is close-- so they have done their work their. But they have done it in the basketball arena, too. I don't mean just performing game night. They have put a lot of time into it. They have invested a lot of energy and a lot of work, whether it is the weight room, offseaon, whatever. Their fire is burning bright. That is nice to have. You know whatever happens on the floor, it is not going to happen because you have regrets that you haven't worked hard and haven't done the things. You are going to do it because you put in the time. That is a great attitude and a great compliment to these two guys.” – Pat Flannery
“(Keith Simmons) leads the league in field goal percentage. When I look at stats, I look at league stats, because that is what we are comparing, apples to apples and oranges to oranges, and in the league, he is the leading field goal percentage guy in the league as a guard. That’s incredible. He has done a great job of improving his defense. He does a lot of things that don’t even show up in the box score and obviously he is one of the top scorers in the conference. He has just made a great progression from year to year. I have not had a player that has worked any harder than Keith Simmons in all my years of coaching. He stays up all summer and works on the weights and conditioning and things.” – Ralph Willard
“We told (Derrick Mercer) in the recruiting process that if he were to come here that would be the role he would playing. It wasn’t something he was unaware of or was afraid of. That was the kind of situation he was looking for. He has handled it very well. He has learned a lot. You can see him gradually maturing, gaining confidence, and being willing to step up. There were times early in the season that I really had to encourage him that, yes, you are a freshman and you can defer to the upper classmen off the court. But on the court we really wanted him to step up and run the team. He is a very soft-spoken kid. Early on, maybe he was a little hesitant to do that, not wanting to overstep his bounds, so to speak. Certainly down the stretch he turned it up. We have seen him gain quite a bit of confidence.” – Jeff Jones
“We have two players who are capable of having the kind of impact Austen Rowland had for us. Jose Olivero now is a junior and Joe Knight is a senior. Certainly we know Joe Knight is very explosive and can go for as big number on any given night. When he is really focused the right way, and playing with a high level of energy, he is a very dangerous player with his scoring and his ability to create for others. Jose Olivero has been tremendous for us this year. His game has continued to improve and develop. He has got the best still ahead of him. I know he is really looking to step his game up at this point in the season. He is going to look to try to make amends for those last two losses we suffered.” – Billy Taylor
“Matt Bell has struggled. But he played pretty well last weekend and he has practiced a little bit better. Matt has really struggled. He has had foot problems all year and has been limited also. One thing that has hurt Matt is that Matt is such a self-made kid. He gets in the gym; he is the ultimate gym rat. When he gets in the gym, he really has purpose, he really goes at it hard and he is trying to get something done. That is really how he really stays sharp. He knows that he needs that. Unfortunately, he has not been able to do that because of his health. It has hurt him physically and it has almost hurt him mentally because Matt knows he needs that because of who he is. He is not the strongest, or the quickest guy, or the biggest guy. He needs to put that in and when he doesn’t put that in, it kind of gets to him. But he is coming around.” – Jim Crews
“Rob (Thomas) is a kid who is pretty athletic. He has come in and given us some good time. He has been able to match up with certain people defensively and that is what we have been looking for him to do, to play some things defensively. He has given us a spark off the bench. We have used him and he has played well for us, really the second half of the league season.” – Pat Flannery
“Andrei (Capusan) has done a great job for us. This is his first year, and actually he didn’t start all the games this year. But he was clearly one of our better players the whole year. He has developed so much over the course of his four years here at Lafayette. He brings a lot of athleticism. He has been a good leader for us this season. Obviously we would not have had any success without Andre in there.” – Fran O’Hanlon
“(Jarell Brown) is very important. Jarell has had a good year and a bad year. He has stepped up and he has had some really outstanding games. He is our leading scorer. That has been great. Unfortunately, his development has not been to the full strength because of his injury earlier in the year and really, lack of practice time ever since then, because of that injury. He is on the right path, but we’d like to be going down the road a little bit faster with Jarell. That’s not his fault, or anyone’s fault. That is life. Jarell has a pretty good scoring mentality. He can get off shots fairly well and he can make difficult shots at times. So we give him a lot of freedom in terms of movement around our offense. We allow him to move and come off a lot of different things and he has taken advantage of that.” – Jim Crews
“We knew going into this year we would have to have some of our younger guys step up. It has been an up and down process, mainly because of injuries. Right now, Colin Cunningham is playing well. Tim Clifford has progressed and is doing a good job for us in the low post area. Alex Vander Baan has been steady throughout the whole course of the year. Having to play starter’s minutes as a freshman is difficult at this level, especially in our league because most of the freshmen aren’t ready to do that. So I think we have made good progress.” – Ralph Willard
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