WORCESTER, Mass. -- As you approach the Hart Center high atop Holy Cross' hilly campus, the images are unmistakable. The support structures on either end of the basketball arena side of the complex are taller in the back than the front, so their tops slope forward in the distinct shape of horseshoes. While the Crusaders have enjoyed their share of good fortune in their almost four decades in the building, their recent lack of luck makes you wonder if a renovation is needed. Perhaps the school can reshape the pillars into four-leaf clovers, because right now, the old mojo simply isn't working.
Over the past two seasons -- under two different coaching staffs -- the Crusaders have done the virtually impossible, going 3-20 in games decided by five points or less. That, in large part, is why they have finished last in Division I in each of those seasons in Ken Pomeroy's "luck calculation," which measures the difference between a team's expected record (based on offensive and defensive efficiencies) and its actual record. During that span, Holy Cross has won its fair share of games decided by double digits, usually a solid indicator of a team's overall quality. So the Crusaders are not a bad team, per se. They just can't seem win a close game. Ever.
There's no single defining reason for the trend, either. Sometimes Holy Cross has squandered late leads, sometimes rallies have fallen short. Sometimes the Crusaders missed game-winning shots, sometimes the opponents made theirs. Two years ago, they were a very solid free throw shooting team. Last year, they were masons at the line. From one season to the next, the coaches changed, some personnel changed, the scoring distribution changed, the nonconference schedule changed ... and Holy Cross' rancid luck remained the same.
So what gives? And did those involved realize it was this bad?
"As many times as we stayed in the office after a loss trying to figure it out, yeah, we were aware of it," said second-year coach Milan Brown with a chuckle.
Brown said that his staff tried multiple ways of addressing the problem. They spoke to the team about it. They tried ignoring it. Then they felt ignoring it was making it into more of a specter, so they tried to look at specific solutions. Nothing took. The tough losses kept coming.
"Sometimes, I think for us, going through this past year, you can start to see it being a mental thing as well," Brown said. "Now, when it gets down to two minutes, instead of saying 'I'm going to go make these free throws,' you say, 'Just don't miss,' and when you go with that approach, you have no chance of making them. Or in our situation, this would happen in close games, 'Coach said "Don't foul,"' which means you don't defend at all and the kid goes and lays the ball up, and I'd say, 'I didn't say that!'"
Part of the issues can be attributed to coaching turnover. Under former coach Ralph Willard's disciplined, defensive style, the Crusaders went to four NCAA tournaments in his 10 seasons. When Willard left to become Rick Pitino's assistant at Louisville following the 2009 campaign, the job went to Sean Kearney, an assistant at Notre Dame for nine seasons before coming to Worcester. Kearney, more of an offensive-minded coach who gave his players more free reign, lasted just one season -- the first of the two luckless ones -- before he was fired. The school then hired Brown, sort of a hybrid of the two predecessors who prefers a physical, defensive style but still encourages some offensive individualism.
The net result is that Holy Cross' senior class, led by leading scorer Devin Brown and jack-of-all-trades Mike Cavataio, has never played in the same system for two-straight seasons. This upcoming campaign will be the first time there has been any continuity for them, and Brown (the player) thinks that's been a significant part of what's gone on the last two seasons.
"We've had to adjust to different systems and as a result of that, we haven't had something we could rely on," Devin Brown said. "As a result, maybe I force a play, maybe one of my teammates forces something that's not there, maybe we are feeling a little extra pressure because we don't have something consistently to go to like other teams that have had a system for several years. I don't want to overthink it, but I don't think we have been as comfortable as other teams down the stretch."
So will anything change this season for the Crusaders? Despite losing Andrew Keister, the team's leading rebounder and other double-digit scorer, they have a promising batch of underclassmen. They also return guard R.J. Evans, who led the 2009-10 team in scoring but missed most of last season with a sports hernia.
Brown also says as his acclimation to the roster he inherited continues, this season's team should look more like how he wants his program to play, so perhaps comfort will breed more success. Despite all the tough luck, the Crusaders still went 7-7 in the league last season and while Bucknell (Mike Muscala) and Lehigh (C.J. McCollum) have individual stars, talent levels across the league are fairly similar. A couple possessions here and there, and a .500 record can quickly morph into a league title challenge.
Brown is trying to make sure his team internalizes what's happened, along with the opportunity ahead.
"We haven't run from the thing as far as the luck factor, but we said, 'We did this, this is all our fault,' he said. "The great thing about it being all our fault is we can change every nook and cranny of it, so let's go create some better luck for ourselves."
And, hey, if all else fails, the new block/charge circles being painted on the court for this season are in the shape of horseshoes. Maybe having an extra pair in the building will recharge the Crusaders' mojo?
Brown smiled at the idea, but he wasn't buying it.
"I don't know if ours will be more powerful than anyone else's," he said.