Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Holy Cross Preview

Somebody needs to give Ralph Willard a job. A former Pitino disciple (he was an assistant on the team that lost in the greatest NCAA tournament game ever played), he's been at Holy Cross since 1999, and his team has basically controlled the Patriot league since then. Since his first season, he's gone 130-64, including 75-22 in conference. From 2001-03, they played the role of low-seeded team giving the big boys a first round scare, losing by 4 to Kentucky, 11 to Kansas (the game, for those who saw it, was much closer than that), and 4 to Marquette (the year they went to the final 4). His team has missed the tournament for three straight years, though, losing in the conference finals to Bucknell in the last two (they picked up an NIT bid for their troubles in 2004). This year, the Crusaders have gotten off to a 6-2 start, and once again look to be in a two team race with Bucknell (who has struggled early) for conference supremacy.

Of course, all that history doesn't mean much for tonight's game. Holy Cross relies heavily on senior guard Keith Simmons. He leads the team in scoring, field goal percentage, and shooting (he's taken 30 more shots than anyone else). At 6'5", he's a big guard, and also pulls in 6 rebounds a game. Look for a combination of Nelson, McClure, and Henderson to guard him and try to shut down his offense. The two other starting guards are both small - 5'11" senior Torey Thomas plays point, and 5'11" soph Pat Doherty is more of a spot up shooter (he's taken 29 threes and only 22 twos). Thomas has a very good assist rate (28.4%, and 4.6 apg), but turns the ball over almost as much. With pressure, he and Doherty both can be forced to give the ball up quite a bit. Inside, the Crusaders get their scoring and shot blocking from 6'10" junior Tim Clifford, and their rebounding and grunt work from 6'8" soph Alex Vander Baan. Clifford doesn't rebound particularly well (Simmons and Vander Baan are the team leaders) but blocks almost 9% of opponents' field goal attempts. Duke has struggled recently against good shot blockers, so we'll see how they handle Clifford down low. Bonus random note about Clifford - he's an extremely good free throw shooter, sinking 20 of 21 attempts. The Crusaders are not particularly deep - only 6'6" soph Colin Cunningham and 6'8" frosh Eric Meister get over 10 mpg, with 6'11" soph Greg McCarthy and 6'5" soph Lawrence Dixon used sparingly, as needed.

Holy Cross' success this year is largely a product of their defense - they allow opponents only .917 points per possession. However, their offense has struggled - the ORtg is only 97.5, their effective FG% is .455, and they turn the ball over a lot (24.3% of possessions). The one thing they do well on the offensive end is rebound - 39% of their own misses. They have also controlled the glass on the defensive end, allowing opponents to get only 27.6% of available rebounds on that end of the court. The Crusaders perimeter defense is strong - Simmons, Thomas, and Doherty all have steal rates around 4%, and the team steal rate of 13.3% is in the top 40 in the country. They're forcing turnovers on 23.9% of opponent possessions, which is above average, but not great. The guards can gamble because of Clifford down low, but if he's not in the game, there's not really another shot blocking presence to take his place.

This should be a relatively comfortable win for Duke (in the 9-15 point range) that could be very comfortable if they avoid turnovers on offense. Ball control will be a key for the Crusdaers - Holy Cross' guards are very vulnerable to the turnover, and Duke's defense has been exceptional, particularly on the perimeter. Also, Clifford struggled in his only game against "major" competition - he posted only 5 points, 1 rebound, 1 block, and 5 fouls in a loss to Syracuse (although to be fair to Clifford, Simmons was the only Crusader who showed up for that one). The other key to look at in this game is rebounding. Even in the loss to Syracuse, the Crusaders controlled the glass (40% offense, 67% defense). If Duke continues its newfound rebounding prowess, scoring possessions will be very difficult for the Crusaders to come by.

No comments: